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Linus Torvalds: Linux succeed thanks to selfishness and trust (bbc.com)
175 points by sparknlaunch on June 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

> I think your question assumes a level of planning that simply didn't really exist. It wasn't so much about me having any particular expectations of what would happen when I made the original kernel sources available: a lot of the impetus for releasing it was simply a kind of "hey, look at what I've done".

I love that. Just a couple of guys randomly working together on something that at the time sounded like a toy.

> 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". No, open source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons.

And there's the cynicism we all know and love.

I'm not sure I would call that cynicism... It reminds me of Larry Wall's three great traits of a programmer: Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris [1]. They're both using the negative form of a personality trait for literary effect.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Wall#Virtues_of_a_progra...

Are you saying selfishness is a negative personality trait?

It is. It is only our arrogant individualistic capitalist ideology which pretends otherwise. Cooperation, mutual aid, these are principles that life on earth has found to be beneficial. Biologists and anthropologists understand this. But economists think so highly of themselves that they see no need to study history or modern psychology, so they come up with equations they think describe reality, then ignore evidence which contradicts their models. The result is predictable. You get ecological catastrophe, a breakdown of social trust, and the breakdown of society itself. But oh how we lived like kings before the music stopped! Or maybe living like cancer is more appropriate, sucking up resources, growing rapidly, and fucking up system-wide dynamics. There's a reason why selfishness has historically been viewed as a negative trait, and it's instructive that a society as sick as ours lives by the mantra, "greed is good!".

Cooperation, mutual aid, these are principles that life on earth has found to be beneficial.

Those things are not incompatible with selfishness. If I'm pursuing my own self-interest, I might quite rightly choose to cooperate with my peers for mutual benefit.

Conversely, if I don't pursue my own self-interest, what exactly is the point of living at all? It's not like intelligent life serves any objective purpose or end, other than that which we individuals imbue it with.

You're right, and I attempted to clarify my thinking in this comment: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4107492

We just seem to use a shitty definition of selfishness these days.

We just seem to use a shitty definition of selfishness these days.

That's English for you, where every word seems to be overloaded with about a dozen different meanings...

The problem is, selfishness (in the negative sense) and what I would call selfishness are actually related in a sense, which makes it easy for people to slip in and out of using either meaning in conversation, and everybody winds up arguing for no reason.

I am not sure you can make the claim that cooperation and mutual aid are "principles that life on earth has found to be beneficial", nor would you find a large body of either biologists or anthropologists rushing in to support said claim.

Life on earth has gone roughly four billion years relying largely on predation, competition and survival of the fittest. I think you will find symbiosis and mutualism to be in the vast minority when quantitatively evaluating "things that work in nature".

I'm not saying that means cooperation and mutual aid are "bad". I just find it interesting when people impose their personal morals on nature.

There is, as I understand it, strong support for the ideas of "Reciprocal altruism" and "kin altruism," from the evolutionary psychologists / evolutionary biologists. Game theory research[1] by Robert Axelrod[2][4] has shed some light on the nature of altruism, cooperation and competition, as has the work of Robert Trivers[3].

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tit_for_tat

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Axelrod

[3]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Trivers

[4]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_cooperation

I probably overreached in that comment. Competition and cooperation are both important, I just think that we've come to irrationally overvalue selfish tendencies, while forgetting the cooperative basis of social behaviors that have made our species so successful.

I don't see it as cynical. Open source works when the community is able to foster a sense of economic interdependence and people get out and give in. This interdependence is perhaps a more important good than the software freedom itself, although I don't think you can get there without the software freedom (BSD licenses are no worse at this than the GPL v2 license).

If we are all better off by contributing to eachother's well being, we will do it over and over, and we will all benefit economically and even in a sense spiritually, in the sense that such a community nourishes the spirit in a way that other models don't.

Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Yes, but he was talking from the context of division of labor. He also believed free markets would bring prosperity only if you have equality. And on division of labor in the same book he says that division of labor 'will make a human as stupid as a creature can be'.

He predicted Javascript AND php ?

Just from examining a match factory

That is a true and good observation. Much depends on those kinds of people and those kinds of motivations.

But there are also the priests and doctors, from whom we reasonably do not expect to hear "this is all about my interest, what's in it for me?" And likewise there are many enterprises where people are doing them for reasons which do not relate to turning a profit, a category which a great deal of valuable open source development falls into.

Sure, but he doesn't say that self interest is or should be the only interest, only that markets and economic activity work best when self interest and the interests of society align.

Adam Smith wasn't a free market fundamentalist in this respect, much as the fundies would like to make out. He was very much in favour of regulation.

I like this:

"..The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order [businessmen and traders], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention."

SOPA and ACTA anyone?

And he was also an all-around pretty shitty economist, and those who claim he invented economics ex nihilo are delusional. He pretty much stole all the correct parts from other economists and added some falsehoods. His diamond-water paradox for example is retarded, and a step back from previous (mostly French) economists, since it's based on the Labor Theory of Value, which later spawned Communism. When I hear people praise Adam Smith I just want to NOPE out of the room.

The "selfish motivations" may be non-financial. Priests and doctors may be motivated by helping others.

Being motivated by helping others is not a selfish motivation...

It can be. If you believe that you cannot be truly secure in your freedom and well-being unless everyone around you is also secure in theirs, then helping people could be seen as "selfish". The problem is that we use the term selfish to mean whatever dickheaded move looks like it will net us some short term benefit. Without the ability to see all the indirect consequences of these selfish actions, we don't notice that the aggregation of them actually diminishes our overall well-being. Socialism, it could be argued, is based on selfishness as well, but paired with a recognition of our limited foresight and an attendant tendency to err on the side of mutual support rather than ruthless competition.

there's the cynicism that makes America work, and why socialism sucks

So why does France work?

By the way, is it really true that France works (or that America works)?

I don't agree with Linus here. He first goes on about how "open source" is not about making the world a better place, but then states that the GPL is all about fairness. Well, that's the point - we want a fair world, where everyone's freedoms are respected. How is that not making the world a better place?

You could just as well start arguing that there is no such thing as altruism, and that everyone always acts out of selfish reasons, even if helping someone else. I must say I find this to be a quite misantropic attitude in general.

"I must say I find this to be a quite misantropic attitude in general."

That's circular reasoning, even if disguised. You are (implicitly) saying that selfishness is morally wrong, and therefore people who propose that every act is out of selfishness have a negative worldview (a world view in which everybody is morally wrong), and therefore they are misanthropic (because of your own assumption that selfishness is morally wrong and that considering everybody morally wrong is about only seeing the bad in people). If you remove the moral presupposition on 'selfishness' from your argument, your conclusion to misanthropy (which has an inherent moral judgement) doesn't hold any more.

And just to point out you don't have to go the Ayn Rand route to come up with an alternative.....

I believe our virtues are built out of our vices. Selfishness can clearly cause harmful actions, but it can also be a strong motivator for building a common good as well, and these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed every vice I can think of can be built into a virtue.

In this view it isn't virtuous or not to be selfish, but rather the manner in which we are selfish (or lustful, or envious, or angry, etc) that creates virtue or vice. Order your vices and they become your virtues.

And just to point out you don't have to go the Ayn Rand route to come up with an alternative...

No, but one should probably consider what Rand had to say about selfishness, when considering discussions of this nature. Her ideas make a lot of sense; and have been a positive influence on a lot of people.

I guess the way I look at Rand is a using her works is ideally a bit like using Nietzsche (and indeed I see a lot of continuity in these two thinkers). Their actual ideas are interesting solely as an exercise in inverting the way we normally think about things and thus creating a void where we can create something new.

The nice thing about playing with inverting opposites is that it is useful in destroying what we thought we know. I wouldn't treat the inversion as any more valuable than what it inverts though.

I'm not exactly an Ayn Rand scholar, but AIUI, Rand was influenced by Nietzsche and claimed him as such an influence early in her career... but at some point later in her career she broke ways with him and adopted a more negative outlook on his ideas. At any rate, I can definitely see some overlap or correspondence in their works (disclaimer: I'm also not a Nietzsche scholar).

Uh, whether altruism actually exists is a matter of serious debate. Google "does altruism exist".

I think it's telling that one of the most successful open source leaders doesn't really believe in altruism as the motivator for open source.

If you always acted as if people would do things just to be nice, you might be continually confused about why contributions were made or not made. If you just assume that people are going to contribute for their own interest, then your project may be more likely to succeed.

Contributing for your own interest doesn't mean "selfish" or misanthropic. It means finding common ground where interests align and both parties win.

Do you think IBM or Google contributes to Linux to be nice? Obviously they have business interests in Linux. That seems to be the simplest explanation. And I don't see it to be different for other contributors either.

Random links from Google:



If you define altruism in an artificially stringent way - e.g. if you decide that actions cannot be altruistic unless they result in pain, cannot be habitual, have nothing to do with any relationship, have nothing to do with sympathy, have nothing to do with any ideology, have nothing to do with trying to be a better person... then of course you will conclude that it does not exist. Not because it is not a real thing, but because you wanted to determine that it does not exist, and therefore artificially ruled out all the ordinary cases.

But this is a game of words because that's not what altruism is. Altruism can be based on kinship, reciprocity, ideology, self-image, sympathy, habit and other things which are active in normal people's minds.

IBM and Google are public corporations, meaning that turning a profit is the whole point of their existence, and that their leadership have a legal responsibility to shareholders. The same is not true of human beings, much as a few have decided that turning a profit is the whole point of their own personal existences.

There is some degree of ambiguity in the common usage of the word vs. the term that evolutionary biologists use.

I don't agree with your definition -- altruism based on reciprocity is an oxymoron. altruism based on kinship, i.e. a mother feeding a child, is not altruism. It could be called "nice" or "heartwarming", but it's not altruism.

But putting the definition of words aside, what do you think is the most common motivator for open source? Do you think that most contributions to the Linux kernel are due to aligned interests, or due to altruism? (Whatever altruism means, I would say it is mutually exclusive from "aligned interests")

I think Linus probably has some insight into this question, having led the project for so long.

I think pure altruism is rare but possible. In fact I vaguely remember a story about a guy contributing drivers to the Linux kernel for old hardware that he didn't even own and never planned on using.

On the other hand, maybe he just had a different idea of fun than other people (in all seriousness).

>In fact I vaguely remember a story about a guy contributing drivers to the Linux kernel for old hardware that he didn't even own and never planned on using.


Possibly this fellow, who wrote drivers for over 200 USB webcams?

Yes exactly!!

In the interview though, he says it started when he bought web cams for his daughters but there was no Linux support.

But then he realized that a lot of the code was shareable, so he generalized it to 235 cameras.

You could call the difference between making 2 drivers work and 235 "altruism". Or you could just call it "doing it a good job". Most people have the desire to do a good job.

I frequently do the same thing... I call it cleaning up dirty hacks, and learning the essence of a problem. Not necessarily altruism, but I won't object if anyone calls it that.

Or just showing off !

Never underestimate the benefit of people showing off. Otherwise Mozart would have retired at 12 and become a music teacher

I know the debate about altruism and I was implying that I'm on the side of people who reject the hypothesis that it doesn't exist.

I do agree about finding common ground and shared interests, but I don't think all of this is an end by itself - it's a means to achieve a fair world. This goes for the GPL, too, and indeed free software in general, and I think this is what Linus does not understand from his purely technical perspective.

I don't know if altruism exists. I don't even know what "exists" means in this context. Does the color orange exist? Or is it just an arbitrary name we give something we perceive, dependent entirely on our own language? I do think that pure altruism is overrated though.

On some level I think to be successful at a business you have to think in some way you are making the world a better place. You might not be doing that purely altruistically. Indeed you are probably interested in money too. But to be successful you have to think you are doing something cool that makes peoples lives better.

I think reciprocity is ultimately better than pure altruism for a couple of reasons. First, if you expect to make a profit, you have a cushion to continue your work when things go downhill. I have heard of not-for-profit magazines ceasing publication because of a lack of such a buffer and having to deal with unexpected expenses, for example.

Secondly interdependence is a good thing, and it is spiritually nourishing (I mean this not in the sense of supernatural but in the sense of one's mood and spirit).

Thirdly reciprocity helps ensure that the actions actually are being seen by others as valuable and worth supporting. This prevents some sorts of hubris-related mistakes.

I don't know if altruism exists. I do know that reciprocity-based economic interdependence is something I value a lot more.

it is only a serious debate between computer nerds and those so diluted by financial reasoning. It all sounds scientific. Its sad really.

It is fairness in terms of "I will let you use the source code I wrote, but you need to let me use any changes you make to it". It's not about "everyone's freedoms", that's what Free Software and RMS are all about. Linus has always said that his choice to use GPLv2 was about the reciprocity of contributions to the kernel project, not about the freedom crusade of RMS (to the point of calling Free Software people "insane").

He first goes on about how "open source" is not about making the world a better place, but then states that the GPL is all about fairness. Well, that's the point - we want a fair world, where everyone's freedoms are respected.

The fairness he mentions is not about having a fair world, but a tit-for-tat kind of fairness. When talking about a fair world, people usually mean a world where everyone is equal, which is not tit-for-tat fairness.

> When talking about a fair world, people usually mean a world where everyone is equal, which is not tit-for-tat fairness.

Citation needed.

It seems that the meaning of "fair" depends on the location.


"Fair" is one of those concepts that doesn't quite mean the same thing on either side of the Atlantic.

>Citation needed.

Agreed. I think most people who talk about fairness and equality are saying "don't fuck me before I've even started" rather than "we must both have the same outcome."

Maybe this common misunderstanding is a hangover from the fear of the red menace?

I think you've latched onto the wrong part of that quote. He's not saying "open source" isn't making the world a better place, he's saying that it does. However the primary mechanism by which it does so, is based on rational self-interest (driven in part by the very clever reciprocal nature of the GPL), not feel-good gestures without actual impact.

It's analogous to Dawkin's selfish gene or Adam Smith's invisible hand, individual self-interest at one level drives communal benefit at a higher level.

> individual self-interest at one level drives communal benefit at a higher level

Something important is missing: this individual self interest must be "well pondered" and long term. If not, you get a McDonald-like catastrophic result.

A lot of companies are just fixing stuff for their software and hardware, by submitting patches it almost guarantees it will turn up everywhere - I could imagine getting Microsoft or Apple to provide a feature to all their customers is a lot harder.

The other reason is maintainability, it's time consuming to maintain a patch outside the tree and people will end up submitting them so that it doesn't get bitrot.

Doesn't really seem altruistic to me.

Also consider this with regard to other open source projects:

Proprietary PostgreSQL vendors often contribute a heck of a lot of source code back for a reason that seems obvious when you think about it and applies to something like Linux too. The basic issue is that if you keep your own private fork and maximize what's not shared then you also maximize the work you have integrating what everyone else is contributing. By giving back as much as you can, you cut your costs down the road. That isn't to say that EnterpriseDB gives back everything but they back quite a lot.

When it comes to a proprietary vendor like Microsoft, it is much harder to get the QA done, and get updated drivers out to customers.

Having dealt with Microsoft support, you are right. They genuinely don't want to provide a code fix as that means hassle. You just don't get that with open source whether you fix it yourself or report a bug.

I wrote a blog post a while ago on motivations for open source: http://gaiustech.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/why-open-source/

Here is a link that provides rich details on the kind of tinkering that eventually lead to Linux. It started off with a game of Prince of Persia...


There seem to be to exist to competing theories for success: 1) plan where you want to be in the future, and work your way up there, 2) do things that interest you until somehow, randomly, you hit something big. It is interesting that both models appear mentioned by "successful" people (by whatever definition of success you use), even if they are contradictory in some way.

Is the truth somewhere in between? Or are both valid models for leading a fruitful life?

Neither. Your statistics are bad:

> It is interesting that both models appear mentioned by "successful" people

Biased sample set. What are the "unsuccessful" people doing, and does it correlate?

Honestly in my experience, talent and productivity (and, of course, luck) matter immensely more than planning or inspiration. (Edit:) But no one is going to give someone an interview answer that amounts to "I'm brilliant and I Get Things Done!"

I don't know that a "fruitful life" is something that can be objectively defined, so I don't know that there is anything to measure statistically.

Also certainly talent matters, but inspiration (real inspiration) is important to long-term productivity. For example I have a friend who had serious issues working and typing due to old neck injuries. She became inspired to look into the connection of bows to Old Norse mythology and in the process not only typed a long written work (she's now working on a book) but took up bow-making and made several original contributions to my own understanding of some of the connections. None of this would have been possible for her if it were not for this inspiration.

Similarly when you look at people like Linus who can code all day every day there is a certain level of inspiration that's required to do this without burning out. I also know that when I am in an inspired mood even hard problems are easy, but when I am in an ordinary mood, hard problems can be hard......

Also I suppose I should explain why I see inspiration as so critical and what I mean by inspiration.

A lot of people have this idea that inspiration means you come up with a bright idea and everything else kind of falls into place. I don't see inspiration this way. Inspiration is the ability to engage in work in a higher state of consciousness (described below) and having fun doing it. I don't think you can separate inspiration and perspiration. Inspiration makes perspiration not only possible but fun.

There is a state that I can be at for periods of time that I call "inspired." In that state, problems that come at me are ones where I can immediately see solutions or at least where I can look to find solutions. Problems are all surmountable and my productivity is very high.

In a normal state I may approach a problem methodologically and maybe a bit linearly. I may analyze it, pick it apart, take baby steps, etc. I do all this when for some reason I can't access my inspiration. But in an inspired state I approach problems non-linearly, my task queue seems to move in semi-random order but it is usually the right order, I don't analyze problems, and I move in strides, sometimes large strides. Large problems when I look at them immediately fall to pieces and I can map out what needs to be done fast enough I can usually just do it, and when that doesn't happen it's usually just faster to move on to another problem, let it sit, and come back to it with a different perspective later (they all fall to pieces within a couple of days). Everything just kind of flows. I can keep that state up sometimes for months before hitting a "normal" point. These aren't depressive episodes or anything (I don't feel worse off mood-wise for example, and I am not usually a lot less productive than many other programmers I have worked with in this state) but can be usually shortened by paying a bit more attention to balance in life.

Of course it's possible for some people to find inspiration in every day problems, to look for ways to be inspired in this way. Maybe that's what you are thinking of as talent. I see it as something that can be cultivated within oneself and transmitted to others.

I have seen this happen with so many other people I have known it's a wonderful thing to watch. Resistance turns to heat, and eventually the flame springs forth.

First I side far more with the second than the first, but I would say it's not enough to go for things that are interesting. It's important to work on things that are inspiring. In my experience and in the experience of many I have worked with inspiration can overcome all sorts of obstacles.

But on planning, I am a huge fan of planning. I think one should plan extensively and in detail but then shelve the plan and not even look at it during execution. The real danger with plans is that they are inflexible and cannot take into account unforeseen developments. However, the time spent thinking through the plan places one in a position to do so. As Eisenhower said, "Plans are nothing. Planning is everything."

I say plan all you want if you're going to execute on those plans.

Otherwise, think tactically.

It's making lots of plans that distract you from simply acting that gets you into trouble.

This is just based on my own personal experience, though.

He says he favours tinkering. But then he says he believes "pre-installation" is the way forward. Am I the only one who sees a certain incompatibility here?

It is not rocket science to transfer an image to some media. Installation of an OS is not some black art. Non-technical consumers can do it. (I've tested this with some people and they caught on more quickly than I expected.) More advanced users can compile their own images from source.

At the same time, I suspect that replacing Linux when it is "pre-installed" will prove more and more difficult. Hopefully I'm wrong. But Linus himself fears bias. That fear should also apply to "Linux bias". Equal opportunity for all OS's.

Pre-installation is a Microsoft/Apple tactic. It is far too easy to abuse.

Consumers should have choice.

Make OS installation easy. Let consumers do it, not just OEM's and Apple.

OS installation has been easy for quite some time now. That doesn't make Linux catch on in the consumer desktop / notebook market. A typical windows user has no idea why he SHOULD install linux. Furthermore, even the ones that do try often get stuck with 3rd party driver support, especially on new hardware (and the time when a device is new is exactly the time when someone might be tempted to install linux). The only way to solve this, is preinstallation by the manufacturer.

Windows 8 will be a big chance for the consumer brands besides Apple to distinguish themselves with their own preinstalled distro. Microsoft will again fight, like they did during the netbook boom (which I believe is one of the reasons why netbooks saturated / declined really fast - the 2nd generation with XP preinstalled just was not pleasant to use anymore). Only this time the core market of the PC industry will be affected, therefore a lot more will be on the line.

> Once people and companies got over their hang-ups - renaming it "open source" and just making it clear that this was not some kind of anti-commercial endeavour definitely helped - things just kind of exploded.

I can't help but notice that this is what ESR said when he critiqued RMS for being a fanatic, and most people in the comments were pretty critical of ESR. I guess Linus at least agrees with him.

(I realize this might sound like an "Argument from Authority", and you'd be right, but we all know Linus is an authority for a reason, and I'm not saying he's right because he's an authority, I'm merely saying he agrees with ESR, which should at least be some kind of signal.)

Linus Torvalds, a great hero of mine, I do not know about you, he is certainly my King of Geeks

>I'll happily sit in front of the computer the whole day, and if the kids distract me when I'm in the middle of something, a certain amount of cursing might happen.

Hahaha I love that Linus :-)

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