Well, the packing hasn’t started yet, but the clearing out the room has already generated nine black bags full of rubbish. Along with copies of the Economist and old (half-inched) computer components, it’s mainly lecture notes and other course related stuff. I had been discussing with a friend who is just finishing her MRes course whether it was worth keeping them, but seeing as I doubt I’ll ever be doing Chemistry work (and doubt that I’ll desperately need something from a lecture course that I can’t either figure out or look up somewhere), they are heading for the bin. That only leaves me with some electronic copies of reports to add to my certificate to show for four years hard work. Well, four years of the course anyway.
There’s also been a bit of a giveaway going on – "It’s like a jumble sale, but you don’t have to pay anything" said Owain. There’s plenty of stuff that I haven’t used for a while, and I need to reconcile the ‘but it could be worth something’ with the ‘you wouldn’t have even remembered you own that if you hadn’t just found it’ attitudes. I’m leaning hard towards the latter, since being a natural horder I’ve ending up with lots of junk. Do I really need a P60 motherboard, and a 486 motherboard, when I have two other working computers? Really? What about the force-feedback steering wheel you haven’t plugged in for years? Have it, if you want.
But the giving things away seems strange to some people. If something has no value to me (or I’ve taken value out of it equivalent or greater than its cost), then I’m not losing anything by not having it. I could ask for something in return (like money, for instance), but why? I don’t gain anything by ownership, and I don’t gain anything by making it a scarce resource – if it was scarce (i.e. I kept it), I would only benefit relative to other people, not in absolute terms. So selling it would be kind of selfish, and fairly pointless.
You might notice that the economic philosophy of my moving house is broadly similar to the economics of Free and Open Source software. Except they are much more powerful and scaleable, since the ‘it’ in question can be possessed by an infinite amount of people simultaneously; because copying software has zero cost – it is information, not a physical object, which is being duplicated. So only by making restrictions on availability can you ensure earning money on the software itself. The problem with restricting availability of software is that it is completely unnatural – it has no incremental costs for duplication – and hence widespread piracy ensues. There are many companies pretending that costly software is quite natural; their existence depends on that fact, so their attitude isn’t surprising.
Imagine the food equivalent of software. Someone, somewhere grows an apple. They give the apple to someone, but the act of giving is instead copying, so both people have an apple. Each time they give someone else an apple, they still have one – the number of apples increases, and everyone wins. Just what price could you put on an apple? Sounds ridiculous perhaps, since everything you’ve ever been taught about the way the world works is based on the idea of scarce resources.
The only problem comes from the guy who grew the original apple. If it took him some time, or some effort, how can he make a living off of it? He can’t, directly. Perhaps he grew it in his free time. Perhaps he’s just generous. Maybe he is employed by a large company that wanted lots of apples for its staff, and the company doesn’t really mind if everyone else in the world has a free apple too – after all, they have their apples, and that’s what they wanted, so it’s no skin off their nose. But don’t be surprised if the non-self-replicating apple companies call foul, if they insist you get a better taste with their apples, if the new fangled apples are a danger to your security, your intellectual property, who do you sue when your free apple goes moldy, or other fear, uncertainty or doubt about this, that or the other thing.
Well, a really strained analogy, since Free/Open source software is pretty unique, and hence good analogies are few and far between. But it’s here to stay, and even if you look past the trees (wow, choice, better programs, better price) to the forest itself, you’ll realise it all makes sense.