19 November 2008

Why Free Software is a Con-Trick

A number of sites have noted this interesting study of a particular kind of con-trick, known as "The pigeon drop". What really caught my attention was the following:

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of THOMAS, the human brain makes us feel good when we help others--this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. "I need your help" is a potent stimulus for action.

Now, how does free software generally operate? It begins with a call for *help* - which means that it elicits the same deep human response as the con-trick described in the original post.

Here are two classics of the free software pigeon-drop con-trick genre, one from RMS:

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free(1) to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.

The other from Linus:

Hello everybody out there using minix -

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

This is why proprietary software will never be able to beat free software: because the latter always brings with it an implicit cry for help, rather than simply offering us a cold and clinical business deal, it triggers the release of a powerful neurochemical that actually makes us feel good when we respond to that appeal. It turns out that it's altruism, not greed, that is good.

12 comments:

Percy said...

I am not sure if I would use the word 'con' since it generally has negative connotations. But, you did get my attention with the title and the point you make about the effect of free software is valid, so I guess it works out in the end.

glyn moody said...

I agree, it was a bit of a con....

Anonymous said...

Not a con, IMHO.

A con happens when one is led to believe in a false fabricated reality context; there's a swindle involved.

Free software is , OTOH, very clear: give your time, dedication (and sometimes also resources) and we'll all create something, which is rewarding process in itself. That is the very clear message for developers: if you find it fun, and you are willing to play, then welcome. Nobody says you have to play.

Also, what users expect is by no means guaranteed (as stated in the GPL). This is clear as daylight.

Contrast this with vague promises of "total support" by proprietary software vendors, which in truth never materializes. Who's the conman then?

Sorry if I don't get into the joking mood, but I'm really p** off with "professional" people lying about their lousy software and how "free software" is so much inferior (another lie) -- and with the idiots who believe them.

glyn moody said...

Well, as you can tell from the other posts on this blog, I don't disagree. But I thought the similarities between the two situations warranted a slightly exaggerated headline - if only to make people sit up and take notice.

Jose_X said...

We give away the goods! It's not a con. It lasts.

Attempts to imitate will only help point out the difference.

Anonymous said...

Ask Linus if he thinks altruism powers free software. He's on record as saying it's really enlightened self interest at work: few, if any, people contribute to a project they aren't going to use themselves. Altruism implies self-sacrifice; doing something from which you gain no benefit, or even incur some loss.

An open source app (or an entire OS) may begin with a call for help, but that call is answered by people who want that app themselves. It may not be greed exactly, but it definitely isn't altruism.

glyn moody said...

@Jose_X: Indeed - this wasn't an entirely serious post....

glyn moody said...

Absolutely: it begins as a con-trick predicated on altruism, and then magically turns into the wonder we know as an open source project where everyone benefits.

Yzt said...

I have to note that the article is something of a "con". It leads you to believe you in for some Open Source bashing and turns the corner to present a praise of the Open Source model. Nice hook to get the OSS haters to read, but a "con" none the less.

glyn moody said...

I agree. But did you feel better at the end?

Anonymous said...

Surely this is a bad analogy. The motivation and purpose of conmen is cheating, they ask for help for their own good. Is there anybody believing that contributors and users don't benefit from free software?

glyn moody said...

As others have pointed out, my headline is itself something of a con. I merely wanted to draw attention to the interesting similarities at a very fundamental, biological level - not in terms of underlying motivations.