Altruism Waldtruism Schmaltruism
Applying open source collaboration models to other creative endeavours
[this article originally appeared on the now defunct iCommons.org website on 2007–10–18, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine it’s being re-run here]
Schmatler and Waldhead get (selfless) help from Joi Ito on their ultimate quest for happiness…
Yes, we know it has been a while since you heard from the geriatric pairing of Schmatler and Waldhead but we’ve been under house arrest at the old age home due to an incident involving a toaster, Schmatler’s false teeth and one of the young nurses. Today our internet connection and false teeth were returned so we have been champing at the bit to get back onto the commons with all you lovely young people (Schmatler is still waiting for his teeth). As part of this seemingly never-ending series of articles on “why people share” this episode on altruism turned out to be surprisingly hard for us to write. If you have been following our ramblings, you know that we don’t have a single good bone in our old (Schmatler) or ageing (Waldhead) bodies. Don’t be fooled by the last episode’s incense clouded love fest.
As it turns out, we even had to look the term up in the dictionary:
“Altruism — the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” First, that is interesting because it shows that Waldhead has been creative with the truth when he told his grand children (figuratively speaking) that they could look the term up and find a picture of himself. Secondly it is more than interesting, because who on earth would put the well-being of others above one’s own?
So, as usual, we turned to the open source software developers in hope of some answers. But to our surprise, this time, the software world turned out to be a less fruitful starting point than expected. After an extensive literature review (Waldhead dutifully re-read all of his MAD Magazines) we realised that very few of the serious academics who are studying open source software look at altruism. Most studies consider things like signalling effects (which are important before turning in case of oncoming traffic if we understand it correctly), getting paid for your contributions, or “scratching an itch”. We had some hope for the “cooking-pot” model. It argues that developers add their vegetables to the commons cooking pot, partly because they know the end result will be a lovely stew, for everybody. During an empirical study of this model, the researchers asked developers if they felt that the value of what they are getting out (soup) is higher than that of the resources (vegetables) they are putting in — and most said yes they do. Even the developers themselves consider this selfish because they invest less than they get out. So, no altruism there. Our search for altruism in open source software had led us down a dead end street, and we only had a few hundred words left to rescue this article.
Finally, we admitted to ourselves that for the first time ever, we needed help. And in a case like this, who better to turn to, than a man who used to let friends store computer equipment in his bathroom (aaah,now the photo above this article makes sense). We made some room on our little couch for an audio interview with Joi Ito.
Click here to download the podcast and listen to Joi discuss altruism, the economic man, the difference between happiness and pleasure, carriers of compassion, and that being a happy sharer yourself, is the best way to get others to share as well. The conversation starts off with an overview of Marcel Mauss’ The Gift and the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, which address the issue of sharing from very different directions. The Gift provides a historical framework for sharing that is non-financial, and sets out a clear process of sharing that runs counter to our economies’ urge to commoditise. The Dalai Lama develops a theory of happiness that is grounded on compassion, and the ability of human people to learn happiness. Why is it that we learn Maths and Sciences in school, but don’t seem interested in learning and teaching how to be happy?
Unfazed by interruptions from Japanese speaking appliances and Schmatler’s hacking cough, Joi then sets out a profoundly optimistic model for collaborative citizenry that will help us identify, and ultimately address, global challenges like climate change. He makes a convincing argument that happiness comes from things like community and a well functioning family, where more is not necessarily better (everyone who has met Waldhead’s family will agree to that), and that the best way to bring others into this movement is to let them participate in our functional communities of sharing, and to be happy.
Words by Schmatler (Philipp Schmidt) and Waldhead (Mass Dosage)