Open source, giving freely, and self-awareness

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Poll: Your favorite open source gift

In a July 2010 post on, Jonathan Opp wrote about the nature of giving and participating in a gift culture/economy. One point that he mentions is the benefit of giving freely, without strings attached. I’d like to expand on that, since I think there’s a lot we can learn from recognizing the hidden strings that we sometimes attach to our gifts.

For example, let’s say that I contribute some new features to an open source project. In the next newsletter from the project leader to the user community, the new features are trumpeted as a significant advancement, but without my name being mentioned. How do I feel when I read the newsletter? If I notice myself feeling strongly resentful, that’s an indication that I did attach some strings to the gift that I gave. My resentment may well be justified, and others might even agree that I was wrongly slighted. But that’s not the point — whether justified or not, I wouldn’t feel strong resentment if my gift were truly free.

Now, that doesn’t mean I have to beat myself up about being an imperfect giver. In fact, just the opposite — I can appreciate that I recognized the feeling of resentment as a barometer, right as it showed up. Because if I didn’t, I’d then be acting from that resentment. Resentment might prompt me to snidely react to the next email message from the project leader, which might provoke him to respond in kind, which could then suck me into an escalating conflict that would end up stealing a lot of my energy.

By remaining aware of the feeling, I retain more control over my next actions. Maybe I need more recognition from the project leader to motivate me to continue working on the project. So perhaps I’ll have a skillful conversation (where I may not even ask the question directly) to gauge whether the project leader can meet my needs. Or maybe there’s another project where I can give freely, and I’ll go work on that instead. Or, maybe I sense a growth opportunity to let go of the attachment, and I continue to work on the project with a clearer intent. You get the idea — any one of these approaches is a far better investment of my energy than just lashing out from resentment.

In general, when we give from a state of abundance, we can give freely. We don’t feel diminished in any way. We can enjoy the act of giving just by itself. We can welcome any future benefits that ensue, without fretting about what we were owed. Whereas when we give from a state of scarcity, there are more obstacles in the way, more opportunities for strings to get attached.

One of the places where scarcity shows up in the open source world is in the “leech” label, applied to those who use plenty of open source software without contributing much on their own. After all, the image of one’s very lifeblood being sucked away is pretty scar(ce)y! As with my recognition example above, whether the feeling of being “leeched from” is justified or not, that feeling can only be present in a giver who isn’t giving freely (if he’s giving freely, there are no strings attached, so there’s nothing to leech onto). And here too, if the giver recognizes this feeling as it arises, he can inquire into it more fully before he acts. For example, the developer might recognize that he doesn’t feel leeched from (and might even feel validated by) any number of end users who freely use the code without compensating him in any way; but he feels indignant toward a corporation that uses his code in a profitable product. He might recognize that, if he felt financially secure (abundant), his indignation might vanish. Or alternatively (or possibly even at the same time), he may feel a strong sense of obligation to contribute to open source projects as compensation for having used them extensively, and has formed an expectation that other skilled individuals should do the same. When people do not meet his expectation, he feels cheated/leeched from/etc.

Here, we have an opportunity to uncover some of the most subtle strings that we attach to our gifts. When we “give back” to an open source project out of a sense of debt (scarcity), to compensate for something that we “took” from the project, then we’re not giving freely, even if we are giving virtuously! We may even end up attaching more strings to the gifts as a recipient, than did the giver who gave them!!

This is an extremely subtle point, so I want to make sure I’m being clear. I’m not at all suggesting that any gift motivated by the natural sense of gratitude is tainted. On the contrary, gratitude is an uplifting feeling that propels us to give freely. It’s debt that weighs us down — its gifts become laden with that emotional burden. Gratitude allows us to spontaneously gift it forward; debt constrains us to pay it backward.

When we give freely, we invite others to take freely. We enable them to utilize the gift from their highest level of creativity. Whether they then give freely to us, give freely to others, or do not give freely to anyone, is out of our hands, and we’re okay with that. The better we get at giving freely, the more trust we develop in the process itself. We loosen our possessiveness towards our gifts, and shift our identity towards the source of those gifts. Instead of an idea bank with depreciating assets that we have to protect at all costs, we start to see ourselves more confidently as an idea mint capable of dynamically creating solutions.

Open Source is a wonderful way to experience this power, and I feel an abundance of gratitude towards everyone who makes it happen.

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Kartik Subbarao is an independent consultant with extensive experience in open source strategy, architecture, and implementation. His career includes over 16 years at Hewlett-Packard in a variety of engineering and technical leadership positions in R&D, Consulting and IT.


Some of us are not programmers ourselves and probably never will be. None the less, because programmers did what they loved, and were willing to submit their work freely online, I and others like me have had access to, for example, graphic programs. These have enriched our lives as artists, educators and writers. We have been able to encourage others to contribute to this programming community, but have not done so directly ourselves. There is an open source mentality that we can share freely using the skills which we do have to offer. We are grateful that this attitude of sharing can span disciplines and hope that some of the energy we contribute in our own way will make its way back, in some form, to the collaborators who have helped us through their programming efforts.


I think you bring a really great perspective to this discussion. So many business schools focus on taking, exploiting, maximizing, etc., and not enough is spent really delving into the topic of giving. As you point out, it's a very nuanced (and very profound) act, and it takes years of practice and guidance to do it really well.

In our society, we are taught to own ideas and give credit for others' work.

When you feel indignant because you weren't given credit, it might mean you are still attached to the project and the code. That's a good thing for the project.

If you can not feel indignant and still care about the project, great. But I think we need to recognize that most people aren't able or willing to do that.

I must confess I was in disagreement with your first gift example. If I contributed, it's because I have some sort of attachment to the project I contribute to. I try to improve it in some way.

So feeling sad because nobody noticed that this attachment was worth mentioning is just for me a normal reaction. And I think you're allowed to give that feedback. That doesn't need to create a flamewar, but can be said.

It's a bit like when you're in love. If you give some proofs of love to someone, you probably also like some interest from that person in return. Love, like gift, can't be one way only.

And as a project lead, I try to mention explicit contributions each time I receive them, as I want to treat people like I like to be treated myself.

Some people already said to me that I was too emotional (trying to criticize me and make me look insane). But, even at work, you need some motivation, some attraction to what you're doing. So of course, I'm emotional about gift/feedbacks. And I like good work to be recognized, and credited correctly.

What you call in your article strings, is what I'd call social/technical relationships. And I think these are what is the most needed in our more and more virtual world.

I feel somewhat out of my league responding to a Frenchman on the topic of love, but I'll give it a try :-) There's a popular quote attributed to Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull:

"If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If it doesn't, it never was".

These are the kinds of lessons in freedom that I think open source can teach exquisitely well.

By all means, recognize people who contribute, treat people fairly, create a collaborative and collegial atmosphere -- there's nothing in what I said that contradicts any of that. What I would simply say to you is, while you're doing all that good stuff, just be <em>aware</em> of your various identifications, strings, relationships, etc. Whatever we can do mindfully is wiser than what is done unconsciously.

All good comments so far. I'd like to expand the conversation beyond "giving" and "taking." I'd like to talk about <em>sharing</em>. There's a sense of <em>economy</em> when one gives and takes. You can barter for something you want with something you have. And when you give what you have in order to take what you want, there's an exchange. You and your trading partner have both lost what you each gave. But knowledge isn't <em>lost</em> when it is shared. That's what makes it fundamentally different than the material economy.

Before Open Source, there was Free Software. Combining them, we can talk about FOSS. I think it's more accurate to describe the foundation of the movement (dating all the way back to Free Software) to be about sharing. Free Software encoded knowledge in machine language so that Linus could benefit from that knowledge when writing, compiling and debugging his kernel. And so it goes. The beauty of FOSS manifests itself in the diverse community that has built up around sharing knowledge. Wikipedia credits that ethos with its success.

I've always felt that the concept of a moral debt, to the person(s) who freely give something of value to you, isn't a bad thing, but a good thing. Acknowledging that I am in gift-debt, prompts me to find ways to pay forward to the community that which I cannot directly pay back to the original giver. Or, I pay back that what I have to give. And yes, that is gratitude as well. But, I don't see the concept of gift-debt as a burden. It becomes a medium of exchange, where currency fails. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote extensively on this concept in the "Red Mars" series. Neat idea, which I have always felt was hand-in-hand with the Linux community spirit. :) Ric

This is beautifully written, Kartik, thought-provoking and challenging. Attachment is a difficult subject for me. For example, as I put together an essentially free survey for team development and posted it on the net (see, I thought often about whether I wanted to "hold onto the survey" or simply let it loose into the world, letting others use it and modify as they wish, and perhaps capitalize on it commercially. I had to work that all out with myself, and I see what I have today as a kind of compromise. Where I personally get hung is giving something to others that they might well use to make money with, and yes, the attribution or lack of it would matter. It's interesting to me, even in the form it is today, I have gotten questions about exactly why it's free to teams and I am forced to explain that it isn't really free if you want to make money with it. But there's still the suspicion that there's a catch or agenda someplace -- that's in part the culture I suppose. We are <em>so </em> conditioned.

Anyway, I suspect that this "complexity" is exactly the stuff that needs to be struggled with, and there are no perfect answers, at least not right now for me. I try not to pretend that I can live without attachment -- I'd be lying to myself and others to say so. I can live in service at times, and I certainly want to make a contribution, but I'm not all that enlightened when it comes to totally releasing in the way you've described.

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