Solving Problems Without Markets

David Hansson, on protecting the improbable social structure of open source:

Take Ruby on Rails. More than 3,000 people have committed man-decades, maybe even man-centuries, of work for free. Buying all that effort at market rates would have been hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have been able to afford funding that?

That’s a monumental achievement of humanity! Thousands, collaborating for a decade, to produce an astoundingly accomplished framework and ecosystem available to anyone at the cost of zero. Take a second to ponder the magnitude of that success. Not just for Rails, of course, but for many other, and larger, open source projects out there with an even longer lineage and success.

Some problems are tough to solve with market values, especially when they offer no immediate returns.

MIRI is one example of this. They survive by donations, because “defense against intelligent supercomputers” is not a short-term investment. Google Calico is another example. That project exists because Google can afford to invest in things (like radical life extension) that won’t make money for the next 10 years.

Many wonderful things are built because of the market. The chair I’m sitting in is one of them. So is the phone on my desk, and the equipment in the hospital six blocks from my house. Markets help solve a lot of problems.

But they are not always good at solving certain “invisible” problems.

Some are invisible because most people don’t care about them—like one of the problems Rails tried to solve, “programming is hard to understand”. (This was before most people saw building apps as a thing they could do themselves.)

Others are invisible because most people don’t think they can be solved—like the problem Calico aims to solve in the long term, “humans are mortal”.

It may not be obvious that these things occupy the set of real, solvable problems alongside hunger and disease. But they do. And whether it’s philanthropy or open source (they share many qualities), it’s worth preserving social values that lead us to solve problems in non-market ways—not because the work isn’t valuable, but because it’s hard for a single person or company to capture that value.

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