Free software out of passion - or, the curse of capitalism

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My neighbor Jim is obsessed with vintage gasoline pumps. He collects them. He restores them. He named his dog Petro. He stores them in his garage, and under his carport. They are beautiful things, I must admit, all shiny and strangely elegant. And though he suffers from severe fibromyalgia, he spends much of his free time restoring rusted and neglected pumps to their original beauty.

I don’t know why he does it. Nobody claims he does it out of boredom, or that he’ll stop doing it because he isn’t getting paid. But I don’t know why he does it.

Neither do I know why I write free software. But I know it’s not from boredom.

Chris Anderson recently wrote The Awesome Power of Spare Cycles, in which he says my neighbor restores gasoline pumps because he has too much time on his hands. Oh, he calls this “spare cycles", but it’s essentially just a clever phrase for, “too much time on his hands".

He claims, “Web 2.0 is such a phenomena because we’re underused elsewhere". (As an aside, can we drop the whole “Web 2.0" phrase? It’s a marketing term for “the web", and is completely useless.) By “Web 2.0", he means, “user-generated content", another phrase he uses. As opposed to corporate-generated content, I assume.

“Open source?" he writes. “Spare cycles."

In his assertion, there is an implicit assumption that anything not done for money is done from boredom. It’s as if people will only do something from necessity, or for a tangible reward, like a monthly paycheck.

By lumping creators of free software and free content (such as Wikipedia) in with game players and watchers of television, he has reduced the argument to one of wasting time versus working. There is no other axis on his graph of useful cycles.

His worst mistake is conflating the time used to create free content and free software with the time burned at work watching DVDs or playing Solitaire or stalking a member of Linkin Park. It’s as if these two things are inextricably tied together, when, in fact, they are two separate things.

So, to sum up, corporate-created software and corporate-created content are not the result of spare cycles, but non-corporate software and content are.

In a related story, Sun VP Rich Green admits he is concerned about the current free software model, claiming it is unsustainable. His solution: compensate free software coders.

Now, I’m not against getting paid. I like money. But there are a few things wrong with the assertion that the free software world is unsustainable without money.

Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Green make assumptions about the motivations of free software developers. These assumptions are not necessarily true, at least for the entirety of the community. Maybe not even true for the majority. In Mr. Anderson’s case, it’s the assumption that anything not spent on home life or on work is “spare cycles". For Mr. Green, we are a “social artifact". I’m not quite sure what he means, but perhaps he assumes we are a reaction against Microsoft, or something similar.

I think perhaps they have been cursed by capitalism. Their arguments have the implicit and explicit assumption that capitalism drives all things. This is revealed by Mr. Anderson’s statement, “People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free". Mr. Green’s thesis is based entirely on capitalism.

I am not against capitalism: it is a decent economic model. It would be nice if the United States would give it a try.

Economics is not the only driving force in the world. Not everything can be evaluated in terms of economics. The need for fulfillment that drives people to design and code free software is not always economic in nature, and so falls outside any economic model. As communism and capitalism are both economic models, they cannot be applied to free software developers, any more than they can be applied to an avid gardener, or someone who writes poetry and hides it away in their desk.

Free software certainly affects economics. But don’t let the tail wag the dog here: the economics are not entirely responsible for free software developers. Ignoring feedback loops (which admittedly are probably quite influential), it is free software that primarily affects economics, not the other way around.

I find myself more akin to my pump-obsessed neighbor than I do to strictly-professional programmers. I’ve met many geeks in my life. I understand Jim much better than I do many of those who enter into the salt mines of corporate software development, and otherwise do nothing with computers.

We are not immune to the effects of economics, certainly. Jim occasionally sells a restored pump to purchase glass globes with emblems of Pegasus, or new paint, or two old unrestored pumps. For us, it’s a new book, or a new laptop, or a plane ticket to a favorite convention. We still have to feed our families and pets, paint the outside of the house now and again, buy new tires for our cars.

And so on.

Jim is an artist. His hobby is a bit unusual, but not unique. There are thousands of people with the exact same hobby. His workmanship is impressive, as are the results of his labor. He works his hobby not because he has too much time on his hands, or because he expects monetary compensation, but because he loves it. There is no other explanation needed. There is no reason to rationalize his hobby in an economic framework.

He simply enjoys working with his hands, in spite of the pain caused by his fibromyalgia. He is proud of his results. He is fulfilled by it.

For creators of free software, the reasons are often the same. We do it because we can. Because we want to do it. Because it is fulfilling.

I hope Mr. Anderson and Mr. Green have fulfilling lives. In fact, I wish everyone could have as much fun in their lives as I do, when I create something in code. Whether spending hours outside planting flowers and tending gardens, or feeding elephants at the zoo, or collecting and organizing stamps or coins, or rebuilding old gasoline pumps, I hope everyone is able to find one thing they enjoy.

Then perhaps Mr. Green and Mr. Anderson and all the others just like them will stop trying to attach a dollar sign to everything.



Jonathan Roberts's picture

Wow! I think you're spot on here :D

The desire of many people in the modern world to bring everything back to economics and statistics is incomprehensible in my opinion. These people need to get out and find something they love to do, then they might see things differently!

After saying all that about statistics: there was a report compiled in 2005 by some people at MIT about the motivations of free software developers. They reached the conclusion that there are a large number of motivations, but to me their report suggested that the primary reason was that many people reach a "state of flow" while developing software, and it's this exhilaration that drives them to work. Not to mention the desire to help others and share what we learn!

Jim Varnum's picture
Submitted by Jim Varnum (not verified) on

Excellent piece. Very well thought through. I can completely relate to the: "I find myself more akin to my pump-obsessed neighbor than ...." paragraph. But, if I have one critique, it would be these 2 sentences:

"I am not against capitalism: it is a decent economic model. It would be nice if the United States would give it a try."

They aren't necessary, don't make sense in the context of the article, and sound a little like 'cya' for choosing too 'dangerous' a title... Breath easy, the article 'speaks' for itself.

Good job

Laurie Langham's picture

I don't know about "spare cycles", I think this bloke, Anderson, has got a few fruit bats loose inside of his head. He needs to go and find himself a life, somewhere.

As you suggest, any attempt to generalise the intentions of Free Software developers is fraught with peril. Trying to make general assumptions, regarding the overall usage of the 'web', is even more so.

For instance, between 1996 and 2003, Australia had this federal 'Communications' Minister(IT supremo), with weird starey eyes, and almost no comprehension of the subject of his portfolio.

This burke thought the 'internet' was only populated with gamers and porn sites, so, he left Australian IT to languish in the dark ages, while the rest of Asia streaked ahead.

Blokes like him, and this Anderson, are simply chicanes on the main straight of progress.

elastic taboos's picture

I feel very sorry for Mr. Anderson and Mr. Green, they should step back and evaluate their own hobbies, see if those have anything to do with spare cycles. But I have a strange feeling that these corporate zombies have no hobbies at all.

mattflaschen's picture

I'm sure many free software developers code simply because they love to do so. But there are many others who do it as a job, and we should encourage both!

Andrew Min's picture

I partially agree with you. I think Anderson is partially right. Sometimes, programmers do open source stuff because they have too much time on their hands (VirtualDub, while not open source, is an example of a developer with too much time on his hands. And he admits it). But often, like in the cases of Firefox and, it is to make a great piece of software.

However, I do think that if a programmer got paid, he would spend a ton more time on the project. Programmers seem (to me anyway) to get bored very quickly. After a few months (or occasionally, years) they quit (leaving their product as ghostware). If they were paid, maybe they'd stick around more...

Andrew Min

blytheworks's picture

Doing this (programming) because you love it - what a concept?

Personally, I think free and open source programmers are the brightest of the bunch. I believe they also keep the proprietary programmers "honest".

When someone does something for money, they are not necessarily in it for the end consumer. FOSS is always in it for the end consumer. Sure some programs have extremely long development cycles, or they are abandoned by the original programmer(s). But that is also the beauty of FOSS. Someone else (or group) can volunteer to help on the project or revitalize something that has died and make it new again.

It is in the arena of FOSS where new ideas are bred every nansecond. It is entirely possible that a lot of FOSS was bred out of frustration of the programmer in the propritary (closed) arena. What if they had an idea that didn't fit into the corporate model at that time, but they knew it would be useful to someone besides themselves. FOSS is the place to release that creativity.

Lastly, I think a lot of FOSS programmers work for a living (programming or otherwise) so it is probably a real rush to know that their idea is not only useful to others but also liked.

Money is not everything and it will never be the only thing. Long live the FOSS programmer.

Author information

Anthony Taylor's picture


Tony Taylor was born, causing his mother great discomfort, and has lived his life ever since. He expects to die some day. Until that day, he hopes to continue writing, and living out his childhood dream of being a geek.