Linux Creator is Pro-Galt: ‘Open Source Is About Being Selfish, Not About Getting Everybody to Serve Some Common Good’
The creator of the most popular open source operating system, Linux, has categorically blasted one of the most pernicious myths
about ‘free and open source software (FOSS)– that it’s all about getting people to contribute to ‘the common good’, ‘self-sacrifice or the need to serve the welfare of others first.
In his BBC interview, open-source software development leader and ‘king of geeks’ Linus Torvalds talks about the virtue of ‘selfishness’, which he describes as ‘the real idea’ about open source. With his unapologetic praise for selfishness, Torvalds is in effect channeling Ayn Rand.
Asked why does he think people have been willing to give up so much time without financial reward, Torvalds gave the following answer:
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.
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.
Now, those selfish reasons by no means need to be about “financial reward”, though.
Of course, not everybody, including most so-called tech writers or computer journalists, understand that the open source business is all about one’s ‘selfish’ gains or motives. The system allows budding and potential developers to gain more technical knowledge and to acquire more skills they need to achieve their ultimate goal: financial and technical success.
This reminds me of a dishonest article published four years ago. In her online article titled John Galt is dead or Linus shrugs, Dana Blakenhorn described Linus as the “anti-Galt”, “shy”, somehow who “likes teams”, and “is more interested in solving a problem than in anything else.” It’s as if John Galt, one of the main protagonists of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, doesn’t like teams or is not interested in solving problems.
To people who read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus and who understand her philosophy, John Galt is the epitome of ‘rational selfishness’. The following line sums up Galt’s beliefs or philosophy in life: “I will not sacrifice myself for others, nor ask another to sacrifice himself for me.”
So, was Ms. Blakenhorn trying to argue that Linus was for self-sacrifice or the common good? That he and his team invented and improved Linux in order to serve people’s ‘common good’? In the first place, I don’t think she read a single page of Atlas Shrugged.
In fact, Linus’s BBC interview reveals one thing: that’s he’s pro-Galt, not anti-Galt. It shows that he clearly understands the concept and virtue of selfishness and he’s rationally acting on it.
Here’s an excerpt of his BBC interview:
Linus: “The early “selfish” reasons to do Linux tended to be centred about just the pleasure of tinkering. That was why I did it – programming was my hobby – passion, really – and learning how to control the hardware was my own selfish goal. And it turned out that I was not all that alone in that.
“Big universities with computer science departments had people who were interested in the same kinds of things.
“And most people like that may not be crazy enough to start writing their own operating system from scratch, but there were certainly people around who found this kind of tinkering with hardware interesting, and who were interested enough to start playing around with the system and making suggestions on improvements, and eventually even making those improvements themselves and sending them back to me.
“And the copyright protected those kinds of people. If you’re a person who is interested in operating systems, and you see this project that does this, you don’t want to get involved if you feel like your contributions would be somehow “taken advantage of”, but with the GPLv2 [licence], that simply was never an issue.
“The fundamental property of the GPLv2 is a very simple “tit-for-tat” model: I’ll give you my improvements, if you promise to give your improvements back.
“It’s a fundamentally fair licence, and you don’t have to worry about somebody else then coming along and taking advantage of your work.
“And the thing that then seemed to surprise people, is that that notion of “fairness” actually scales very well.
“Sure, a lot of companies were initially fairly leery about a licence that they weren’t all that used to, and sometimes doubly so because some portions of the free software camp had been very vocally anti-commercial and expected companies to overnight turn everything into free software.
“But really, the whole “tit-for-tat” model isn’t just fair on an individual scale, it’s fair on a company scale, and it’s fair on a global scale.
“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.
“And the thing is, if your competition doesn’t put in the same kind of effort that you do, then they can’t reap the same kinds of rewards you can: if they don’t contribute, they don’t get to control the direction of the project, and they won’t have the same kind of knowledge and understanding of it that you do.
“So there really are big advantages to being actively involved – you can’t just coast along on somebody else’s work.”
Torvalds was of course recognized and awarded for his contribution, as he bagged home Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize. The Linux creator will share the prize and a check of $1.3 million with Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka.
“Linus Torvalds’s work has kept the web open for the pursuit of knowledge and for the benefit of humanity – not simply for financial interests,” Ainomaija Haarla, President of Technology Academy Finland said in a statement.