Does Selfishness Make the FOSS World Go ‘Round?

Well it’s been a Linus-heavy month here in the Linux blogosphere, what with Torvalds winning the Millennium Technology Prize and all, and even now that trend appears to be continuing.

The most recent conversation, however, has focused on comments Linus made in the wake of his big win.

“In many ways, I actually think the real idea of open source is for it to allow everybody to be ‘selfish,’ not about trying to get everybody to contribute to some common good,” Torvalds told the BBC in a recent interview.

‘Their Own Selfish Reasons’

“In other words, I do not see open source as some big goody-goody ‘let’s all sing kumbaya around the campfire and make the world a better place,'” he added. “No, open source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons.”

Torvalds did go on to clarify that by “selfish” reasons he didn’t necessarily mean financial ones. Nevertheless, the comments apparently rubbed more than a few people in the FOSS community the wrong way.

None other than the widely respected Carla Schroder soon responded with a rebuttal of her own, followed soon afterward by a different take from Muktware’s Swapnil Bhartiya.

‘I Disagree with Linus’

Over at LXer, the vocal masses were fairly tripping over themselves in their haste to be heard in not just one but two, three and four separate threads.

Down at the Linux blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon, Linux Girl has been getting an earful.

“Selfishness is only one of a dozen motivations for using, creating and propagating FLOSS,” exclaimed blogger Robert Pogson, for example. “I disagree with Linus that selfishness is king in this matter.”

‘Not One of His Best Moments’

Richard Stallman “did not start GNU for selfish reasons but to do IT the right way and to share,” Pogson explained. “Linus did not start Linux for selfish reasons but to learn and to share.”

Similarly, “I did not switch to GNU/Linux for selfish reasons but to preserve a functional classroom where PCs would run more than a few hours without crashing,” Pogson added. “Munich did not migrate to GNU/Linux for selfish reasons but to do a better job for citizens.”

Linus is “a great shepherd of Linux cats and he does a lot of things the right way, but ascribing motives to the world was not one of his best moments,” Pogson concluded.

‘There’s No Place for Selfishness’

Indeed, “we work collectively, to improve the computing experience of each other,” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol agreed. “There’s nothing selfish in that.”

Rather, “it’s voluntary communitarian work,” Ebersol told Linux Girl. “My benefit is the benefit of others, as what others make also benefit me. So, there’s no place for selfishness.”

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien took a more measured view.

“This is a classic case of using a slippery word with multiple meanings,” O’Brien opined. “The connotation starts to matter a lot.”

Lightning vs. Lightning Bug

The problem with using the word “selfish,” as Linus did, “is that it carries a negative connotation which I doubt he intended,” O’Brien explained.

“If he had used a longer phrase, like, ‘Linux allows people to work on projects they find interesting or important, and feel good about themselves while doing it,’ he would not have attracted this much attention,” O’Brien said. “But I think that was the sense of what he was trying to say.”

Still, “Carla Schroder’s point is valid,” O’Brien added. “We should not use words that imply things we did not mean to imply. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

‘A Mutual Self-Help Arrangement’

Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile RaptorMobile Raptor, wasn’t so sure.

“I think Carla Schroder took Linus Torvalds’ statement out of context,” Lim told Linux Girl. “Basically, I think all Mr. Torvalds was saying was when he started he did it for his own intellectual satisfaction, and he did not start the project thinking about financial or other benefits that the undertaking might reap for him.”

Twenty years later, “you find large corporations expending substantial amounts of money to ‘help’ Linux development,” Lim noted. “These companies expend substantial resources to support Linux because in doing so, they reap the benefits from being able to use other contributors’ code. So they contribute their own code. This in turn may or may not help others.”

Basically, “it is a mutual self-help arrangement,” Lim concluded.

Indeed, “the advantage of the GPL is that everyone can be selfish and still be contributing to a common good rather than taking changes and hiding the result, forcing the open version to be always one step behind the closed,” offered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

‘Welcome to Reality’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet saw it differently.

In fact, corporations and Microsoft are the reason Linux has come as far as it has, hairyfeet opined.

“Corporations because, thanks to GPLv2, companies like Google can keep all their changes in house and still get free OSes and free buzz while still gaining all the same advantages they’d have had if they went proprietary,” he explained.

At the same time, “MSFT has charged frankly insane prices on the server side, making it profitable to pay developers to fix bugs and improve performance, even if they do have to share some of it back,” he added.

“Is that ‘selfish’? I’d say welcome to reality,” hairyfeet concluded. “Every business does what will maximize profits, and if you can get someone else to build it for free, why not just take it?”

‘Interdependence of Selfish Interests’

Last but not least, Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, had yet another take on the topic.

“Linus is right here, although it is a very provocative thing to say,” Travers told Linux Girl.

“What matters in FOSS in order to make a community work for a long time is interdependence of selfish interests,” he explained. “People contribute back because instead of being a zero sum game, both they and the community get important benefits. This makes FOSS an interesting approach but also a very fulfilling one.”

‘A Rising Tide Floats All Boats’

It’s provocative, though, “because people are used to thinking of there being some sort of continuity between selfishness and altruism where the first is vice and the second is virtue,” Travers suggested. “I am not sure that works, though — our strongest virtues are often those where we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

The relationship between “good” and “bad,” then, “is more complex than we like tothink,” he asserted. “If we structure and temper our vices with compassion and respect for others as guiding principles (because we are social creatures there is a tendency to do this anyway), they can often become our strongest virtues.”

The result, meanwhile, is “great,” Travers concluded. “It means that successful open source projects become economically interdependent communities where a rising tide floats all boats.

“Being successful while helping others to be successful is a very rewarding thing, and the interdependent nature ensures also that contributions that are actually helpful to everyone get additional prestige,” he pointed out. “In other words, far from being selfish in a crass way, it turns selfish impulses and structures them so that the work becomes incredibly emotionally fulfilling and spiritually nourishing.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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