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.
Emphasis added. ↩