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How impactful is free and open source software development?

i would be happy to review / comment on a draft or something like that!

How impactful is free and open source software development?

thanks, these are some really interesting thoughts. some comments:

For every example of someone making a great outsized contribution (Bitcoin, Linux), aren't there thousands of examples of people starting small projects that never get finished or attain wide adoption?

i think this is true. but i think it's true for most career choices / endeavours that they only make sense for people who have the right skill set, drive, personality and so on.

i found some estimates for the eu (pdf) -- around 8% of around 3.1 million programmers are involved in open source, however spending on average less than 10% of their time on open source. i'm guessing this more or less follows something like the pareto principle, where only a fairly small number of these spend significant time and effort on open source (the sort of time and effort that's needed to create a project of significant ambition from scratch).

You seem to be saying that FOSS software development is helpful because it will advance overall economic growth (moreso than software development at a private corporation).

i think i think it's good more because it enables technological development and innovation than because it aids economic growth.

that same eu report seems to think it can be both:

Starting at the generic level of the impact on GDP in the EU including the UK, a significant and large impact of up to €100 billion per year by OSS contributions has been calculated [...] OSS can be seen [...] as a public infrastructure generating massive positive network externalities supported by the high rating by the stakeholders of the benefits of open standards and interoperability provided by the use of and the contributions to OSS. Therefore, OSS has also a further growth enhancing impact in the dimension of the previously quantified impact of the stock of technical standards. Furthermore, OSS contributions are increasing the labour productivity in the EU, which can be explained by their labour cost saving effect reported as major benefits in different surveys among companies, but also being rated as very relevant in the stakeholder survey.

next, you write:

Also, aren't there many examples of private software projects becoming equally large and important (Microsoft, Google, etc)? [...] You seem to be saying that FOSS software development is helpful because it will advance overall economic growth (more so than software development at a private corporation). This is certainly plausible, although I'm not sure -- I feel like the most of the software that I use was created by private companies rather than FOSS efforts.

this is really surprising to me -- in all the projects i've worked, i would say the majority of the infrastructure -- everything from programming languages, frameworks, libraries and so on -- that we've used are open source. (i think platforms and tools are somewhat more likely to be proprietary, but even those are often open source -- think git, unix shell programs, editors, etc.) it's likely that aerospace engineering is different (more conservative?) from web/mobile/crypto which is where i've worked.

(i am talking about the non-surface layers of the tech stack of course -- the stuff that's built on top is obviously proprietary.)

At the same time, the FOSS movement has been around for a while, and it has not taken over the world (I suspect most software is still developed privately), so it must be naturally limited in some ways.

here is the introduction of an ieee software issue that literally opens with the sentence "Open source software has conquered the software world.":

You can see it nearly everywhere, from Internet infrastructure to mobile phones to the desktop. In addition to that, although many OSS practices were viewed with skepticism 20 years ago, several have become mainstream in software engineering today: from development tools such as Git to practices such as modern code reviews. In the programmer community, OSS has become so prevalent that some companies now expect potential employees to have an active GitHub profile that showcases their OSS contributions. [...] OSS has spread its philosophy well beyond software engineering and inspired many other movements and initiatives, such as open innovation, open hardware, open government, open content (e.g., Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap), and open educational resources. Even the way researchers publish their research has changed, with many attempting to have their publications available under open access and following open science principles.

though to be clear, i agree that foss is limited -- there is certainly space for proprietary software, mainly in creating (non-programmer-)user-facing applications, where for-profit firms are better at identifying and fulfilling customer needs.

Why does the FOSS movement arise in the first place? [...] Modular software can build upon other pieces of modular software, like knowledge, so it would be socially beneficial if almost all software was FOSS. But there are usually few private incentives for software to be FOSS, since you could always try to make a buck by having the software be proprietary and charging for it. The FOSS movement seems to have evolved as a way to partially correct for that imbalance -- to provide social incentives that make up for the lack of financial compensation intrinsic to FOSS development.

that is interesting -- i think there's probably a competitive advantage to foss, where people are much more likely to use it all other things equal, it being free, introspectable, extensible, etc.

Utilitarianism Symbol Design Competition

i think you are moving the goalposts a bit when arguing against the view "that imagery is worthless". peter (and you in the original post) wrote about symbolism specifically, and in this context symbolism in flags.

i also think there is probably a significant difference between the kind of plots, graphs and other visualisations you see in a research paper, which are aimed at explaining particular results and theories, and flags, which are more meant to associate with concepts, groups, movements and so on. it's like the difference between a paragraph of prose and a slogan -- one of fidelity, i suppose.

How to Train Better EAs?

Adding to that, Lucia Coulter of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project had high praise for Charity Entrepreneurship when I interviewed her:

Charity Entrepreneurship has [...] made a big difference – their support from the incubation program to now has helped with pretty much every aspect of our work. [...] Firstly they provided a two-month full-time incubation program, which I went through (remotely) in the summer 2020. This was where I decided to work on lead exposure (which was an idea researched and recommended by Charity Entrepreneurship), where I paired up with my co-founder Jack, and from where we received our initial seed grant. During the program we learnt a huge amount of extremely relevant and practical material – for example, how to make a cost-effectiveness analysis, how to make a six-month plan, how to develop a monitoring and evaluation strategy, how to hire, and a lot more. Since then Charity Entrepreneurship has provided LEEP with weekly mentoring and wider support through the community of staff, previous incubatees, and advisors. I highly recommend checking out the Charity Entrepreneurship incubation program if anyone is interested!

(emphasis mine; source)

Does Moral Philosophy Drive Moral Progress?

this post reminds me of scott alexander's post on surviving versus thriving:

I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow. [...] It seems broadly plausible that there could be [a neurological switch] for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.

i always thought there was something broadly true in this view, though there is a lot of variation it doesn't explain.

EA needs consultancies

When you have only one client, being an employee is generally a better deal than being a contractor (with the exception that sometimes they pay significantly more to compensate). See the recent ridesharing contractor debate as an example.

i think that depends hugely on the industry. in software, where i work, everyone i know who is a freelancer prefers to stay that way, even if they work for an extended period for just one customer, and german law (which puts up a number of rules about contractors working for a single customer) is seen as a nuisance by them (though it’s no doubt good for contractors who have less negotiating power).

EA needs consultancies

just adding to this, there is the ea consulting network whose members are all, well, ea-aligned consultants, though i don’t know exactly what competencies most people have.


Can money buy happiness? A review of new data

i don't think it's totally implausible, at least not if we believe that there is such a thing as basic needs, that people are significantly less happy if those aren't met, and that a certain amount of money (obviously allowing for some variation) allows one to fulfill them. that said, i think it's less plausible than a logarithmic relationship, but of course i say that having just read this post ...

edit: having thought about it a bit more, i can't really think of a basic need that has a sharp cutoff -- e.g. you're not either well-nourished or starving, but there are tons of points in between, and at any point money can provide marginal improvements -- so now i do think it's pretty implausible after all.

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