“Spare Cycles” or Selfless Souls?

Chris Anderson (Wired Magazine, The Long Tail) posted an interesting article yesterday, comparing bored humans to spare CPU cycles – and more importantly, just how much they can accomplish. But while the article – as a whole – was really interesting and scientific and is a topic that has been discussed in scientific forums, dozens of publications, and is the basis for a lot of research, there was one paragraph that stood out:

Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they’d rather not be. [……]

That sheriff is watching a movie because he has spare cycles. Spare cycles are the most powerful fuel on the planet.  It’s what Web 2.0 is made up of. User generated content? Spare cycles. Open source? Spare cycles.1 MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Second Life? Spare cycles. They’re the Soylent Green of the web.

While we’re sure that Chris probably didn’t mean anything by it and it was just a passing reference made without much thought, it does beg the question: do people actually believe that open source exists only because we [the developers, the contributors, the testers, the documenters, and just about everyone else involved in the process] are too bored and have nothing better to be doing?!

That certainly is an interesting way of looking at it. Here are the people that make more than half of the software on any given computer and are the drive behind most (if not all) of the innovation in the software industry being referred to as bored people idly filling their time… But that’s not the case! While Chris only mentions open source software by name, following that same line of logic, anyone that does anything for the good of society and no personal benefit only does so because he or she is bored out of their mind and looking for something to do before dropping dead of brain atrophy.

That’s unfortunate because it’s absolutely not true. Some of the greatest and most influential open source and freeware works aren’t provided because of boredom but because the developers want to make a difference. Even in the worst-case scenario, at least half of these people have families to go to, movies to watch, games to attend, work to be done, books to be read, research to be finished, and money to be made. But these selfless and well-intentioned people decided to help the community instead. So it logically follows: they have to be bored. Errrr wait a minute!

This isn’t even necessarily restricted to the software and tech industry: it’s very easy to apply the same (faulty) logic to just about any other noble or selfless acts that take place in the real world. Whether its organizing a food drive, spending a day with the people in retirement homes, or even leading the student council, volunteering in the town meetings, or picking up that empty wrapper lying in the middle of the sidewalk; this line of reasoning would mean that these people have nothing better to do.

It’s wholly unfair and unappreciative to compare these volunteers and kind-hearted people to a sheriff watching a movie or that man on the train playing solitaire to kill time. These people do what they do because they know that this is one of the most important things they can spend their time doing, and they plan on making every second count.

While spare CPU cycles can accomplish amazing things like establishing contact with extra terrestrials or finding the cure for cancer, humans can do likewise. But the difference is, humans have a choice. They can do something (like twittering all day and night long) because they have nothing better to do – and thereby “contributing” to the Web 2.0 model – or they can make a conscious decision to make a difference in their world and do stuff like add content to Wikipedia, publish 352 web cam drivers for Linux users, or write one of the most powerful operating systems on the market today. We’re human beings – it’s the intention that counts.

  1. Emphasis added. 

17 thoughts on ““Spare Cycles” or Selfless Souls?

  1. In other news, teenagers watch TV because they “Have Nothing Better to Do…”

    Also, some programmers sit in cubicles 60 hours per week because they need to pay the mortgage.

    Independent programming is about achievement, not boredom. Ask retired people if they just sit on a rocking chair all day and think.

  2. How about because entertainment fills boredom hole. And programming can be fun.

  3. “But the difference is, humans have a choice.”

    Small quibble: people decide what to do with spare cycles, even if the decision is to waste them. That’s still a choice, even if the CPU didn’t make it. So, there’s no difference.

  4. I’m in “university IT management,” and I was recently talking with a colleague about motivating IT folk.  I said that the F/OSS model of community development offers a lot of potential as a model.  There’s an old axiom that university staffers are “crunchy granola” types who are in it for something other than a paycheck (never mind that we make decent wages).  I mostly support this view.  But this does little to assure that these altruistic thinkers are actually productive.  So what drives them?  In a word, recognition.  They want their efforts to make a difference, but especially they want their efforts to be recognized as having done so.  It’s just like kernel development.  Proof of your “chops” is that your code was included in the source tree.  We managers should take heed and work to shine a lot of light on the work of our exceptional colleagues.


  5. I develop OSS when I’m bored. Heck, I even make Web 2.0 sites when I’m bored. Generally, if I had something better to do, I’d do it. In fact, as a general rule for life, if I have something better to do, I’ll do it. Sometimes programming is the best thing I have to do. I think what Chris meant is that we don’t have anything better to do, but there aren’t really that many better things. If TV > programming, we’d spend all our time watching TV. If staring at the end of my shoe for eight hours was more exciting than programming, trust – I’d be all over that.

  6. Brian, in that case, everything everyone does is out of boredom – because you’d leave it for something better in a jiffy….

    But that’s not the definition of boredom, that’s just life!

  7. Lets do some hypothetical story telling right now:

    1) Coders like to code
    2) Say you are a coder and at work; you make some business product like a spreadsheet.
    3) Creating a spreadsheet app is fine; but you might want to exercise some of your other talents.
    4) Perhaps doing some kernel hacking or creating some drivers sounds like fun.

    Is it boredom? No; this is how you may want to expend your free time. Some peoples work are their hobbies. How many professional athletes do other sports in the off season or in their spare time? Michael Jordon (basketball player) does golf and tried making a professional career out of it. Is MJ bored? No; he is just doing what he loves to do; sports. I know several professional mechanics; after 10 hours fixing automotive issues; they drag in their own classic cars into the garage and keep pimping them out. Those cars go to tracks for racing; as well as auto shows. Are the mechanics bored? Nope; they are doing what they love; work on cars.

    Is it boredom? Nope; just doing what you love in your spare time.

  8. First, great post. I appreciate the clear reasoning, and vindication of the

    hardworking souls behind the ‘apt-get ‘ and the corporate (RedHat, Novell-MS (eeks!))

    making money ‘off’ free-software developers.

    Well, so the oft’ repeated  ‘Linux is cancer’, and  now ‘the bored people do it’ joins this list,

    of brainless quotes.


    Just find out how many MIT, Berkeley grads do it. How many of us are engineers, scientists.

    How many of us do it for ?


  9. Hola ignorante.


    La diferencia de nosotros a personas como usted, es que ganamos dinero por divertirnos y aportamos nuestro cerebro en cosas interesantes. No en estupideces como lo ha escrito

  10. Perhaps boredom fuels some development or in this cohert supports certain development, however it is in my experience that most development is fed by necessity.  Problems arise and people need solutions.  As people/programmers realize similar problems they seek answers, finding that others seeks similar answers they form bonds which grow into “communities” which form OpenSource ‘Solutions’.

    Anyone who has the luxury of being bored, surely has few and far between problems.

    “Boredom” I am sure is merely an off-the-cuff answer a developer may retort, in the midst of a more complex explaination of necessity.

     Long live ingenuity and passion for problem solving!




  11. Of cause he’s right,

    Boredom is the best driver. My best work have been done when bored, same with others I worked with. Tention or short project times never given good code, because the programmer tend to make crucial mistakes in the haste. Managers tend to think that pressure is a good driver; having being involved in at least 7 major projects (+$10M), I never seen this situation to deliver.

    A. Organize yourself accordig to the “Mythical Man Month”
    B. Put 50% of the project time on the first 10% of the project, having time to analyze
    C. Take a holiday, getting bored
    D. Do the job
    E. Cut out _all_ extra smart additions, leave zero of it in the code.

    Then you succeed.

  12. Kurt, while most managers apply pressure indiscrimanetly and without studying the scenario first, generally speaking their very best (in this case, programmers) will perform their very best under pressure.

    I’ve seen projects doomed to failure, then when the pressure level is increased to outrageous proportions, certain people shine through. 24 hours later, you can’t even recognize the project because of what these people have done.

    The problem is that these are the very minority: brilliant, but with pressure become pure genius. Unfortunately, managers don’t realize that they’ll have these two or three people driving at max, but they’ll kill off all initiative in the others. And even then, some of these “elite” have limits lower/higher than others – one or more will burn out if you apply too much pressure.

    Management isn’t as easy as it seems, IMO. You can’t have boredom power your staff, because then nothing will get done. If a big company gave all its employees a holiday, how many will choose to work in their homes to make the project happen?

    Boredom is all well and good for 2-3 people working on minor projects, and best for one man working one project – but it’s an absoloutely impossible incentive for anything bigger than that – including many (dare I even say most?) open-source projects. Like someone mentioned above, it’s the drive for recognition and accomplishment that’s the real kicker.

  13. Computer Guru, lets not a flame war, but a last comment.

    When viewing one side of the coin, there still is another you cannot see, so OK, you have a different experience, as valid as mine, but I commented from my experience. And note my C and D bullets. I did not said it was necessary to be bored at _work_. Also, remember, bored does not always mean not doing anything, but also, what you are doing seems menial.

    And I did not meant cellar installations, but both governmental and global corp level projects over +20 years time. No geniuses to see anywhere, just stressed people making a lot of mistakes. I have spent years to correct the mess what these pressed projects created. As you mention, they are rare. In all these years, I only worked with two geniuses, both had a part in closing down AT&T’s 3B2 computer series (identifying some serious bugs). Both came from the same background as Anders Hejlsberg (Borland Pascal etc) and Bjarne Stroustrup (C++). And both was at their best when bored.

  14. “potential” may be the correct word, but there’s another thing Chris seems to miss. his definition of “boredom” is “work done without cause”, and the unspoken/unwritten element is that he’s defining cause in terms of a traditional pay-for-software model. by unconsciously (or unspokenly) assuming that second part, he’s able to define all open-source as a causeless event.

    which is nice and all, but omits something obvious to those of us who see life as something a little wider than a cubicle :)

    today, i make money from my efforts in the open-source field. lots of other people do too. i work hard to contribute back what i put in (and i’m more passionate about this than when i worked closed-source, where it was possible to get away with nasty code tricks that “seemed to work” or were “good enough”).

    in the early years a lot of what i got back was purely in terms of being able to make my scanner go when it didn’t before (and share that with others), but now … it’s a win-win for me, my customers, and the strangers I never get to meet who share the benefits.

    i won’t get into the issue of defining sourceware versus freeware, though from a software perspective it’s an important distinction (i prefer both).

    chris does raise an interesting point, but i think it’s based in part on a perspective that reflects a lack of understanding (or a radically different idea of ‘productive’, one that is very jealous* and doesn’t value contributions except those which benefit the self and not others).

    * jealous as defined by axelrod wrt the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma” games and referred to by hawking in “the selfish gene”

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