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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.

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