I'm a big fan of Prisoner's Dilemma. Actually, I'm a fan of picking out when it's being applied to a situation, not of the dilemma itself, which is inherently bad. You can read the details yourself but essentially, it's a fancy way of saying, "every man for himself". (I'd apologize for the male slantedness but I doubt female readers would want to be grouped into that bit of analogy anyway.)

It's a little more complicated than that though once you dive into the philosophy of the idea. Basically, it says that you should act in your own best interest even if it conflicts with the interests of the larger group. That's because everyone else in the group is thinking the same thing. If everyone cooperated, they'd all be better off as a group but as soon as one acts against the group, the whole thing falls apart.

If you generalize the concept, it applies to pretty much every major problem facing the world today: global warming (we should all take mass transit), world hunger (featuring the parental mainstay: "There are starving people in Africa and you want to throw that away!"), the election of George Bush (actually, I can't explain that one). In short, we should all act for the betterment of the group but we rarely do.

Except for a large section of the software industry. What do I, as a supposedly rational person, gain from taking time away from my family, friends, and clients to elucidate you people on a regular basis? I don't have Google ads and even if I did, they aren't going to pay for my extravagant lifestyle of cutting code and skinnin' rodents. In fact, this thing is actually costing me money in the form of hosting fees.

One could argue that I do have ulterior motives in that presumably, my reputation would be enhanced and I would reap all the rewards that rock stars enjoy. And that is probably a factor for most bloggers to varying degrees, depending on the author's degree of optimism.

But I don't think it's the driving factor for most, at least not for the ones in my blog roll. A common characteristic to the ones I know is modesty, almost to the point of self-deprecation. Any praise heaped on one is usually deflected and distributed among at least two or three others. The general vibe I get is that people are genuinely interested in helping others.

Of course, there's often more than a hint of pride involved (who doesn't want to tell the world when they figure out a really tough problem?). And there's nothing wrong with that. As long as pride doesn't give way to ego which it rarely does.

Open source projects are another anomaly with respect to the Prisoner's Dilemma and it's one that's even mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Another example of people working for the good of the group more so than for personal gain.

It's an interesting phenomenon, as is the original dilemma. Maybe it's that the group and the individual both have similar goals. Or maybe the industry attracts people of this nature. I suppose one explanation is as valid as the next and I should stop questioning a good thing.

Kyle the Philosophical