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Anarcat: Theory: average bus factor = 1

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(published: Oct. 16, 2019, 7:21 p.m.)

Two articles recently made me realize that all my free software projects basically have a bus factor of one. I am the sole maintainer of every piece of software I have ever written that I still maintain. There are projects that I have been the maintainer of which have other maintainers now (most notably AlternC, Aegir and Linkchecker), but I am not the original author of any of those projects.

Now that I have a full time job, I feel the pain. Projects like Gameclock, Monkeysign, Stressant, and (to a lesser extent) Wallabako all need urgent work: the first three need to be ported to Python 3, the first two to GTK 3, and the latter will probably die because I am getting a new e-reader. (For the record, more recent projects like undertime and feed2exec are doing okay, mostly because they were written in Python 3 from the start, and the latter has extensive unit tests. But they do suffer from the occasional bitrot (the latter in particular) and need constant upkeep.)

Now that I barely have time to keep up with just the upkeep, I can't help but think all of my projects will just die if I stop working on them. I have the same feeling about the packages I maintain in Debian.

What does that mean? Does that mean those packages are useless? That no one cares enough to get involved? That I'm not doing a good job at including contributors?

I don't think so. I think I'm a friendly person online, and I try my best at doing good documentation and followup on my projects. What I have come to understand is even more depressing and scary that this being a personal failure: that is the situation with everyone, everywhere. The LWN article is not talking about silly things like a chess clock or a feed reader: we're talking about the Linux input drivers. A very deep, core component of the vast majority of computers running on the planet, that depend on that single maintainer. And I'm not talking about whether those people are paid or not, that's related, but not directly the question here. The same realization occured with OpenSSL and NTP, GnuPG is in a similar situation, the list just goes on and on.

A single guy maintains those projects! Is that a fluke? A statistical anomaly? Everything I feel, and read, and know in my decades of experience with free software show me a reality that I've been trying to deny for all that time: it's the average.

My theory is this: our average bus factor is one. I don't have any hard evidence to back this up, no hard research to rely on. I'd love to be proven wrong. I'd love for this to change.

But unless economics of technology production change significantly in the coming decades, this problem will remain, and probably worsen, as we keep on scaffolding an entire civilization on shoulders of hobbyists that are barely aware their work is being used to power phones, cars, airplanes and hospitals. A lot has been written on this, but nothing seems to be moving.

And if that doesn't scare you, it damn well should. As a user, one thing you can do is, instead of wondering if you should buy a bit of proprietary software, consider using free software and donating that money to free software projects instead. Lobby governments and research institutions to sponsor only free software projects. Otherwise this civilization will collapse in a crash of spaghetti code before it even has time to get flooded over.