The case for altruism

Is a desire to contribute to open source coded into our genes?

The first timeI heard about Wikipedia, I thought, This has no shot. Why would highly qualified people devote their energies to an encyclopedia they couldn’t make a dime on?

Boy, was I wrong. In applying a pragmatic, pay-to-play view of behavior, I had shortchanged the human spirit. Yes, people want to do well, but they also want to do good. It seems that deep in our collective DNA lies a need to impart knowledge, to proselytize, to be part of a community -- and maybe even to show off just a bit.

I bring up Wikipedia’s success because this week’s article “Blazing trails with open source” looks at an even more altruistic endeavor: open source development. We take open source for granted, but as with Wikipedia, one question persists: What’s in it for its creators? My best guesses follow:

* Humans are social animals who instinctively crave community and try to reach out to like-minded souls. That’s why blogs have taken off; ditto MySpace and other social software projects.

* If you want something done right, do it yourself, especially when existing apps don’t cut it. Sure, for big projects, you can shirk your responsibility and still reap the benefits. But who knows? The whole enterprise might go under if you don’t contribute -- think of this as “NPR syndrome.”

* Advancing knowledge and creating better tools for fellow citizens of the world is just the right thing to do.

* Write great code and you’ll get noticed, whether you’re in Siberia or San Francisco. You may even land a job.

Now, Neil McAllister has a different take. He argues that open source’s “peace and love” reliance on uncompensated developers is unsustainable. To keep open source vital, he says, we need commercial entities, with a profit motive.

Is he right? I’m not sure. And even Wikipedia doesn’t have an answer.