Linus Torvalds is the father of the world’s most popular technology, the Linux kernel which is being used in every aspect of modern life. It powers ATM machines, supercomputers, spacecraft sent out to explore the universe, your Android phones and tablet, your wireless routers, printers, TVs, infotainment and much more. Linux is like a ‘good’ plastic of the modern world – it’s omnipresent.
Linus yesterday received the Millennium Technology Prize and an accompanying cheque for 600,000 euros ($756,000; £486,000) from the Technology Academy of Finland. In an interview with BBC he said, “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.”
Renowned free software journalist Carla Schroder did not like the use of term selfishness and wrote an interesting piece. She took it as an insult of the thousands of free software developers. She wrote, “Let’s stop insulting the many thousands of contributors to Linux and FOSS by calling them selfish, because that it is untrue and unfair. How about a bit of well-deserved praise and appreciation instead?”
I think it’s totally fine to be selfish. What is important is the motive behind that selfishness. In fact, all of us are selfish and no matter how ‘selfless’ our deeds are, they are driven by selfishness.
Let me ask you, why do you go out and help an elderly man cross the road?
Because it makes you feel good. If I asked you why did you did that you may start by saying, “because she needed help”. OK fine, she needed help, but what made you help her? Your answer will be, “Because that makes me feel good, that I have done something to make some one’s life better.”
Notice the word me and I.
They are always there. They will always be there. You do good deeds because YOU feel better; you feel good. That’s very human. We are driven by this I. I is what makes us humans. The moment you remove that I, that selfishness of feeling better, you cease to exist as human. You can be goat, cow, pig..anything but human.
What’s the most famous speech by Dr Martin Luther King Jr.?
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“I want to free people from poverty and illiteracy.
I can give examples from the lives of all those great people who made this world a better place. They were all driven by that “I” in them. They were selfish.
Linus is a very apolitical man. He speaks his heart like an engineer without sugar coating it as a CEO would do, concerned about shares, or a PR agent would who is more worried about the image of a company. Linus is not a CEO, politician or PR agent.
We are lucky to have two top figures in the Free Software world who are not afraid of telling the truth, no matter how bitter it is. Linus Torvalds and Richard M. Stallman are those figures. They say what they feel.
There is a difference between being selfish and being greedy. I have met and interviewed Linus in person and I found him to be extremely humble (so is RMS), despite the fact that he has done so much. He is not claiming that ‘we changed the world and made it a better place’, something you would hear from Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
When the BBC interviewer asked Linus “When you posted about the original system kernel on Usenet in 1991 what did you think would happen to it?”
Instead of saying that he wanted to set the world free and give everyone control over their computing, he humbly said, “I was definitely not expecting people to help me with the project, but I was hoping for some feedback about what I’d done, and looking for ideas of what else people would think was a good idea.”
Selfishness vs. greed
It’s OK to be selfish as long as it is about giving you control over your computing unlike Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who had the greed of taking control of your computing.
I have a very selfish motive behind writing this article because I want to remove some doubts. That was the first thought that came to my mind. If the press knocks on my door and asks why I did that, I may boast, “to make this world a better place” That’s a PR statement, not the reason why I did that.
If you share this article, you will be driven by the selfish motive of ‘sharing’ it with others, because YOU want them to read it and see this aspect of Linus’ statement.
Linux & Open Source
I have invested hundreds of hours of my life installing Linux on people’s machines. I don’t charge for it. I just want them to use free software instead of Microsoft Windows. I have spent even more time in helping those users. I think most of the Linux advocates do that same. They invest their time in spreading word about Linux. Why do I do this? What is the divine motive? Selfishness. It makes me feel better. It makes me feel that I am fighting for a cause. I do this for myself.
I will be a liar if I said I am doing it because I want to make this world a better place. I can’t take even from that sentence and simply say “because the world should be a better place.”
As a writer, artist and film-maker, I want more and more people to read and watch my stories and films. I want to hear their feedback. It makes me feel great when I learn that thousands of people have enjoyed my word. There is a selfish motive behind it – to be recognized, read, watched by millions of people. It’s not insulting.
Linux developers do it for the same reason. They create something to scratch their own itch. And then they give it out so that other’s can use and improve it.
Doing so makes them feel better. Their I feels great.
I don’t think calling myself (or them) selfish is an insult. It’s a fact.