[HFOSS] Eghbal "Roads and Bridges"

5 Mar, 2018 — 2 min

Nadia Eghbal's “Roads and Bridges” is an investigation into the Free & Open Source code that backs the digital world we know today, and the troubles that it faces. Eghbal's analysis takes a very in-depth look at the various forces involved in this code, and what the results are.

Eghbal starts by using OpenSSL as a case study. Despite being used by a massive number of projects and companies (in 2014, OpenSSL was being used by 2/3 of web servers (link from article)), the project was barely getting any donations, and the project was only able to support one person as a full-time developer through a variety of consulting and contract work.

Eghbal summaries this phenomena with,

“As the world blazes ahead into a modern age of startups, code and technology, infrastructure continues to lag behind. The cracks in the foundation are not obvious right now, but they are widening.”

I happen to personally like this quote. It also bears similarity to the value of a brand identity, which is also hard to measure, but just as important to the long-term.

Eghbal continues into a thorough look at what forces are at play in FOSS software. I'll only list a few, but I appreciate how many different sides it encompasses. I wouldn't have thought of Venture Capitalists as an interested party for example, nor that it benefits employees since they are likely to need less training on new tools if they decide to move workplaces (which also ironically benefits the recruiting aspect of companies).

Later on Eghbal also briefly looks at “magpie developer” syndrome (developers liking new and shiny projects as opposed to older projects), and how some companies may see supporting open source as benefiting competitors, mores aspect I would have never thought of.

I also appreciate how deeply Eghbal looks into the history of FOSS, and the comparisons to physical infrastructure (such as roads). The copious amounts of history, nicely summarized to not be as dull as a biography, allow the reader insight into why certain things were done. Additionally, the comparisons to physical infrastructure add a layer of realism/physicality to the discussion.

Finally, I think that Eghbal's look into the future of FOSS is insightful, and so I'm going to end with a quote:

“These newer developers borrow shared code to write what they need, but they are less capable of making substantial contributions back to those projects. Many are also accustomed to thinking of themselves as “users” of open source projects, rather than members of a community.”

2019/07/28: Content reflow