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Free Philosophy: Part II

Cooperation vs. Competition

By J. W. Pennington

"That most of us consistently fail to consider the alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization."
-Alfie Kohn

This is the second article in a series exploring the philosophy of free software. The first, entitled The Beauty of Doubt and published in the February 99 issue, covered the concept of doubt, and discussed the improbability that good software can be developed if one does not have the ability to doubt that one's code, work, theory, or whatever may be flawed. The arrogance that a final product is unimprovable is something rarely if ever seen in the free software community (FSC). This allows for the continued improvement that we all see, and for the quick reaction to problems.

In this article, I discuss competition with the intention of making a case for the FSC's necessity for cooperation in order to exist/succeed. Again, I tell the reader that I am primarily an anthropologist, and as such have little experience writing a technical article. This is written quite theoretically and argumentatively (if I may make that word), and I have written at great length on the competition/cooperation argument itself, preserving its association with the FSC until the end. I have done this not to bore or to preach to the reader (well, maybe a little) but to introduce as much of the full argument as possible in as little space as possible.

Note: I will warn the reader that this article is a bit reactionary and outspoken. I do not write like this to strike fear or any other emotion into the hearts of the reader. I only do it to underline the somewhat insidious problem. I apologize in advance for yelling. With that said, and before I begin this month's discussion, I'd like to clear up some issues. I received a great deal of email regarding the last article. Most of it was positive, and I thank all of those who sent it. Some was quite critical, and I really thank the critics. I do want this to be an open discussion, and it would be quite blind of me to argue for humility while refusing to accept that my ideas are flawed. For this reason, I would like to address the two major points discussed in the many email critiques. In the interest of space, however, I have placed this in another location. Hopefully this will make it easier for those who are not concerned about these criticisims, but not too difficult for those who are. People new to the Free Software Community or to Linux are urged to read it however, as there are some important points made. Suffice it to say here that I am not the official spokesperson for the Free Software Movement, nor are my opinions official in any way. For the official opinions and philosophy of the GNU foundation, visit their website at www.gnu.org.

What are Competition and Cooperation?

In order to adequately condemn competition (which is honestly my intention) and demonstrate the advantage of cooperation, I must first take the time to define and explain the two opposing ideas. Competition, technically stated, is striving to outdo another. Put another way, it is the attempt to accomplish something at the expense of others, or in such a way as to make it impossible for another to accomplish the same thing. The bluntest, and most unattractive manner in which to say this is that my success requires your failure. This is what Alfie Kohn calls Mutually Exclusive Goal Attainment, MEGA[1]. Put this way, competition doesn't sound as healthy as it's cracked up to be. It is trying to do something specifically so that others cannot. It being better (often at any cost) than everyone else. It is proving to oneself, if not to anyone else, that the world is beneath them- if only in one particular circumstance. It is constant, it is pervasive, and it is the American way.

Okay, I'll rephrase that: It's the Western way. One would be hard pressed to find a culture who does it more than we do. We've found ways to compete that are completely mind boggling, including such dubious honors as "He who can cram most processed meat into his mouth in the least amount of time," or, the good old hot dog eating contest. We compete for everything: Most sales in a given month, hottest chicken wings (I'm from Buffalo, no wisecracks), fastest car, even biggest breasts and shortest shorts. Contests for beauty, size, speed, notoriety ad nauseum exist in modern culture, and this is no less true in the software world.

Most companies, including our "beloved" software companies, spend literally billions of combined dollars trying to, in effect, put other companies out of business. By selling their software at "competitive prices" and trying to prove the unworthiness of their rival's work, companies compete for "product placement," "competitive positioning," "prime marketshare," or any number of obscure euphemisms, all of which mean selling "our" product and causing "theirs" not to be sold. There exists a large undercurrent of greed, espionage, dishonesty, and hostility in this endeavor, and many will understand that I do not write that in paranoia. Companies are often forced to bundle certain software/hardware or risk losing business, paying outrageous prices (read: fines), or any number of other negative outcomes. Naming no names, there are magazines and computer journals which are paid, literally, to not advertise the products of various companies, to not offer the option or information necessary to consider an opposing product. It is not only the rival company which loses in this competition. In this, we all lose.

Diametrically opposed to this is Cooperation, which is, again literally stated, the endeavor to work together for a common goal or purpose. Much more broadly put, it is the act of aiding another in the pursuit of a goal in such a way as to promote the attainment of a goal which you are pursuing. In other words, I may not be trying to achieve the same thing that you are, but my helping you may further my cause as well. The most positive factor in cooperative endeavors is their ability to ensure mutually dependent success. If my helping you furthers my own goal, then I become fully committed to your success, and you to mine. If you fail, then I fail. The benefits of cooperation, when stated without the trappings of culture, are abundantly clear; however, they are often ignored or forgotten when competition places its very effective blinders on us.

Why is Competition So Bad?

When all but the most cynical of us think of competition, many ideas swim forward in our minds. The accomplishment of the pioneers of America, baseball and the Yankees (or whomever you may root for), the victory of World War II, the possibilities are countless. What all of these thoughts share is that they applaud the winners, who rarely make up more than 50% of the total. The situation which is always created is one in which there is an inevitability of failure. There will be a loser. Why do we accept this? Because the positive spin on the many benefits and few negative aspects of competition that we have all grown up seeing, and which all but 2% of you reading this firmly believe, are akin to brainwashing.

Now don't crucify me, or at least wait until I'm finished. When I use the term brainwashing, I'm not saying "all of you are mindless idiots, the pawns of the media." I am only saying that our belief in competition perpetuates itself in the media, and we see it literally hundreds if not thousands of times a day, so much that we come to think of it as the "natural order" of things. We have been socialized to accept it. In our minds, competition has become the healthiest way to better any situation, be it the consumer's choice, the product's effectiveness, or the game itself. It is normal, it is healthy, and it is "human nature." I can assure you, as an anthropologist and as an anticompetitive person, that competition is not a natural human tendency, it is not human nature. (In fact, I have yet to see anything that has been labeled human nature actually be so, mainly because human nature is most often used as a justification for something that is otherwise negative, how many times is the donation to a charity shrugged off as "human nature?")

I should here note that there are two main forms of competition which can be discussed. The first I'll call Situational Competition. This is competition based on an external, unavoidable situation, such as competition for food where there is little. Basically, this is a struggle for survival, and I would argue that in this sense competition emphatically is human nature. We are all animals (theological arguments aside) and we will therefore do what we must to survive. Strangely enough, it is often these situations which cause humans to cooperate completely. Weird species, us.

The second form I call Conceptual Competition. This is competition based on an internal, conceptual situation. Here, we find the competition to which I am opposed, that being the desire to be the only holder of a status or conceptual prize, be it money, power, fame, etc. Ironically, it is this form of competition which is often cited as human nature, a supposition for which there is little, if any, support in the social or natural scientific literature [2]. If there is to be a single dominant principal of human nature in this argument, it would most certainly be cooperation; however, to argue that anything is just human nature is to forget that every individual will act differently, however slightly, in every situation. There is no single "human nature" because the topic is so vast, and so dynamic.

How the Free Software Community (co)Operates

I would argue, as I believe most social scientists would, that the natural tendency of human beings is in fact cooperation. This tendency manifests itself nicely in the practices and beliefs of the Free Software Community. Unfortunately, I am unable to state honestly that either free software advocates in general, or Linux users in particuliar, are individually non-competitive. I have seen far too many instances of "number dropping [a]" and other things to say this with much conviction. The truth is that there are very few people as [crazy, pointless, stupid] anticompetitive as I am, making it a rule to help an opposer beat me at a game in order to better their game. The very great majority of people are individually very competitive. And the acts of the FSC itself are, in a sense, competitive. They are competitive in that they try to offer a substutite for a proprietary product, admittedly, a weak argument, but that pleases me. The goal of the FSC, however, is free access to information for everyone. The desired outcome of the endeavor is not to convince people that a given free product is in any way "better" than a proprietary product (though very often it is), it is only to offer the product freely and openly to all.

Also, competition is (at least as far as I can tell) anathema to the innerworkings and the dynamics of the FSC. Competition as a principle cannot survive in this community. This is because the entire community fails in its desired goal if those within the community fail. The general rule in the free software community (and in the broader hacker community [b] as well) is cooperation, or my answer to Alfie Kohn's idea of MEGA, that is Mutually Achievable Goal Attainment, MAGA.

The rules as I have come to learn them are as follows:

  1. Learn everything you can about [fill in blank with programming, electronics, computers, or whatever else you fancy]
  2. Never exclude another from learning about [see above]
  3. Offer freely what you learn/do, so that others might use/learn from it
  4. Never destroy/break the work of another person. That's a cracker's job, and we often don't like them.

Of course, this list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive, but it shows the inherent cooperation involved. The idea of the Free Software Movement is to allow free information access to all, this precludes the idea of competition. If, for instance, I make information free to all, then I include potential rivals, and rivals cannot be rivals if there is nothing to fight about. This, of course, ignores the constant fear in the FSC that a proprietary company will take work done by honest FSC members and make it proprietary. There are rivals here. The hope is that adequate protection can be found so that what is free, stays free.

Concluding Thoughts,
The Last of the Diatribe

There is competition everywhere, and companies promote this. How many times have we heard that something will "increase competition" in [insert business]. It's a fallacy. One company owning everything is indeed bad. In that case we rest at the mercy of an "overlord," but many companies competing is not necessarily a better situation. The argument for competition is that a company will always produce better and more cost effective goods, in order to entice the buyers more than another company. Anyone who believes that this is what happens is- and I am really risking crucifixion here- fooling themselves. The real outcome is that companies bury patents so that you keep buying their goods (Westinghouse and the lifelong lightbulb), downplay or negatively affect the development of various beneficial techniques (American automobile companies, and petroleum companies would not want you to know about the 100+ miles to the gallon a ceramic engine and patent-buried cooling system can get you, and a notably efficient electric car is available in only two U.S. states, and then only because its availability is legislated), and use every method possible to remove all rival companies from their path to total information control (the real goal of MicroSoft and other large companies?).

Competition is, without fail, a negative proposition to the consumer and to the development of any technique/product. We hear constantly that competing companies produce better products because of competition, and that they do it "all for the benefit of the consumer." Imagine what could be produced if they were all honestly working together. Maybe one day the Free Software Movement will show us.


a: A variation of name dropping which involves the participant giving the number of the first Linux kernel he (I have yet to see a female name) used. This is always lower than someone else's number. What's the point fellas?
b: Please do not confuse this with "cracker!" A hacker is, simply put, someone who revels in understanding. For a more definitive description of the difference between the two, see The Hacker Anti-Defamation League's website.


1: Kohn, Alfie. 1992. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p 4.
2: See note 2, chapter 2 in Kohn.

Copyright © 1999, J. W. Pennington
Published in Issue 39 of Linux Gazette, April 1999