That is: having noticed that open-source volunteers now have a large and increasing role in maintaining critical shared infrastructure like the Internet, is there a sustainability issue here? Once the old guard who were involved in the early days (people like Jim Gettys and Dave Taht and myself) dies off, are we going to be able to replace them?
I shall set forth my reasons for optimism.
My principal reason for optimism is that the hacker culture has gotten extremely good at recruiting new talent. By “hacker culture” I mean anybody for which this is either a look in the mirror or an aspiration. Another good test is, as I’ve written before, is RFC1149. If you find it funny you may be part of the hacker culture, and if you find a report of implementing it with actual pigeons hilarious you almost certainly are.
Consider: in the late 1970s when I first began to identify with this culture, you could almost certainly have fit every hacker in the United States in a medium-sized auditorium. If you were willing to have people standing in the aisles, every hacker in the world.
Today, many Linux user groups can easily fill a hall that size, even in a Third World country. I know because they do it when I give talks! Those people aren’t swooning over my rugged masculine charm; they come to hear me because they want to be a part of what I represent to them (I know this directly from audience reactions). Even if only one in ten of the people in my audiences writes code, and only one in a hundred dedicates him- or herself to a piece of key software infrastructure, we’ll be able to sustain the numbers to meet our responsibilties.
Now go watch #commits on freenode for a while. CIA only monitors a small fraction of the active projects out there, but watching will give you a feel for the huge volume and breadth of commits to public repositories going on all the time. This is shit getting real, people not just yakking on chat channels or listening to the likes of me rant at a LUG but writing code. Hacking. Creating. Perfecting their craft.
There’s a helluva lot of momentum out there, and if anything the pace is increasing in tandem with Internet deployment, rather than slowing down. I think we’re also seeing a positive network effect; as the hacker culture gets larger and more diverse, the attractive value of the options it presents to potential hackers rises. Today’s flood of newbies will give us tomorrow’s coders and the next decade’s hard-core infrastructure gnomes.
Thus my optimism. The social machine that trains and motivates our sky-upholders is in rude, vibrant good health. if anything we can live with a lot more lossiness in the long pipeline from newb to infrastructure gnome today than we could have decades ago when our intake was orders of magnitude smaller.
I think it would take a disruption of historic proportions to stop that social machine from cranking out upholders of the sky. And it’s actually pretty difficult for me to think of a disruption in the right intensity range – that is, large enough to stall out the hacker-culture social machine without being a civilization-wrecker so total that not being able to find skilled help for stuff like the Bufferbloat project would be the least of our problems.
The usual run of everybody’s favorite looming threats don’t worry me in the long term. We’ve survived software patents and the Microsoft monopoly in style. We just handed Big Media its ass over SOPA/PIPA and now we know how to do that again if we have to. Overtly political repression by any single government or plausible coalition of governments would just push activity to jurisdictions where it’s less controllable. Pirate Bay isn’t us, but it’s a useful straw in the wind; even the weight of Big Media and several cooperating governments couldn’t take them out, and our network is much better dispersed.
Actually the only kind of disrupter I can imagine actually screwing up the supply of future infrastructure gnomes would be some kind of superstimulus that would be so much more attractive than the hacker culture that it would outcompete us for geek attention. I could sort of distantly imagine the hackerspace crowd and their 3D printers doing that, maybe, except that (a) atoms are harder to push around than bits, creating friction costs we don’t have, and (b) they’re actually us anyway!
Maybe garage nanotech? But I have a strong hunch that when that gets here, the people who make it happen will be us, too. What the hacker culture has actually become is an attractor that both pulls into itself and seeds the maker communities around any new software-intensive technologies that arise near it. Early minicomputers, the Internet, Unix, microcomputers, smartphone modding, 3D fabrication, open-source software and hardware – the hacker posture of mind, and the cultural signifiers that have evolved to express and transmit it, spans all of these not as a matter of accident but of essence.
This, too, helps explain the population explosion. And gives me confidence about the answer to TomA’s question. Crossover among the technologies we hack is constant, and everyone drawn into this attractor is implicitly in training to hold up a piece of the sky.