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Editor's Note: Money is Not Wealth

Jan 31, 2009, 00:02 (23 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

We hear it so often it becomes part of the overall background noise-- silly propaganda about how FOSS is anti-capitalist and un-American because it can't be locked up and exploited. I picture people who look like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons cackling, rubbing their hands, and gloating over their ill-gotten gains. They must be ill-gotten because it's more fun that way. "Mine! All mine! Nobody else gets to even look at it without paying me money. Lots and lots of money! I'll be rich, I'll be fabulously wealthy!"

It's nuts. Oh sure, the first billion or so are exciting, but then what do you do? Spend your days gloating? Maybe it's a character defect, but that sounds dull to me, not to mention maniacally selfish. There is a line from "Dune", by Frank Herbert, that has always stuck with me: "The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences." I think it makes a good yardstick for everything-- what are the consequences of any particular action?

There are all kinds of obvious examples of disregarding consequences, such as destructive natural resource extraction and dirty industries. A select few reap fabulous monetary gains, but they leave trails of damage and destruction that will persist for generations. I suppose that the moguls who profit by dirty tactics are OK with it as long as they have their own clean green retreats to live and play in. Me, I think it shows a lack of self-respect and a lack of interest in real quality, and a sociopathic disregard for other people. How can anyone be proud of leaving behind a huge mess for someone else to clean up, or be proud of ruining the health of large numbers of people? The cleanup always costs way more than whatever profits were extracted initially, and damaged humans are rarely made whole again.

The analogue to that in high-tech is the worldwide swath of destruction left by our favorite monopolist and its hordes of servile toadies. I wonder if there is conscious decision-making at work? Waking up every day and pondering "So what's on the schedule today-- trashing a standards body? Subverting some legislators? Perverting patent law, contract law, and copyrights? Putting the screws to some schools or old people's homes? Interfering in some foreign governments? Leaving a nice wide swath of scorched earth just because I can? So many fun things to do, so little time!"

I suspect these thoughts are cloaked deceptively, rather than faced honestly, though of course I have no way of knowing. Because it seems that someone facing these issues honestly would realize that destructive tactics have short shelf lives-- they work only as long as a bigger, more ruthless bully does not appear. And then they have only themselves to blame for paving the way and making it easier for the new bully.

What is Wealth?

A related part of the anti-FOSS background noise is "Why would anyone give away good code for free?" Which to me indicates a very narrow worldview. I wonder why work in a job, or do anything just for the money? We don't always have the luxury of choice and sometimes have to take a job, any job just to have a paycheck. But you might have noticed that most people are not all that motivated by money. Studies and surveys on what motivates employees consistently report that the number one motivator is recognition. People want their expertise and good work to be acknowledged and respected. Money is important, obviously, because we must provide for ourselves and our families. It's just not the most important factor, and receiving a paycheck doesn't mean they own you. I doubt I'm the only one here who has ever quit a job or fired a client because for some deals, no amount of money is enough. (Let alone selling out for a "loaner" laptop...sheesh, selling out is bad enough, but selling out cheaply? No self-respect at all.)

Why would anyone work for free? I could list a whole lot of reasons, but I think they can all be summed up as "To be who we really are." Coders code. Writers write. Artists make art. Etc...you get the idea. It's not really working for free anyway, it's just not getting paid in money. Payment comes in the form of personal satisfaction, creating something excellent and proud-worthy, sharing, being part of something bigger and worthwhile, having the respect and approval of peers and friends, making the world a little bit better. Getting paid to do what you love is the best of all worlds, though you still have to keep your guard up-- you have to watch out for the folks who think that giving you money means they own you; that money justifies anything. Money is a tricky bugger.