Tolerance

Having acquainted ourselves with some of the interesting features so characteristic of the Open Source community we will now consider other aspects of it. It must be said that tolerance is not a characteristic of this fascinating community, nor a prerogative of it. If you look at various discussion groups and mailing lists, it's easy enough to find numerous examples of Open Source community members who are anything but tolerant. Despite this, there are plenty of inspirational tales of tolerance that can be told about this community.

Once again, let's go back to Linus Torvalds and the years when the IT press discovered the fascinating and fresh operating system called Linux. This was at a time when Microsoft had managed to create a monopoly in both operating systems and office programs and was putting all its weight behind finally crushing Netscape, its rival in the browser market. This was a time when users had good reason to groan about the lack of alternatives, and were annoyed by the Microsoft monopoly and the abuses it entailed, and also by the flaws and surprising quirks of Microsoft programs, including the animations of squirming paper clips. In computer circles, people were actually beginning to see Microsoft as the root of all evil, hence the term the Evil Empire. Naturally, being the new kid on the block, Linux was of great interest to IT journalists, particularly considering whether David had come to slay Goliath? Would Linux dethrone Microsoft?

Once more, Linus Torvalds had a surprising but wise answer. He stated that Microsoft and its programs were of no particular interest to him, since he didn't use Windows himself. He had worked on Linux for his own amusement, not because he had an axe to grind with Microsoft or anybody else.
Although many of Microsoft's competitors, then and even more so today, see Linux precisely as the OS to challenge the Microsoft hegemony, it is important to understand that for Linux developers that is not a primary consideration. For the most part, they really don't have an opinion about the whole world of Windows, because they use Linux.

Having used Microsoft software myself, I completely understand the journalists' view, but it is nonetheless hard to imagine that Linux would have been such a success if its main raison d'être had been merely to replace Windows. Programmers involved in such a mean-spirited project are unlikely to have been as innovative as those working on Linux, who put in their hours out of love for OS programming. From the outset, such a project would have been doomed to become no more than a Microsoft-aping dog with more bark than bite. Sure, perhaps it could challenge Microsoft products in some areas, but in others it would be just as lame and unimaginative as that which it was intended to outdo.

More than anything, however, Linus Torvalds' tolerant attitude makes sense for the sake of his own mental health. It's not healthy for one's central motivation to be hatred and fear. And, what if one day Linux did manage to bring down Microsoft? Would life then lose its meaning? In order to energize themselves, would the programmers then have to find some new and fearful threat to compete against?

People whose actions stem from this idea of having to outdo some perceived threat usually end up in just such a vicious circle. Take the US Army, for instance. You'd have thought that the fall of the Soviet Union would have been a happy day for American soldiers and CIA spies. It was no such thing. Far from it! All it meant to them was looming unemployment. They therefore needed to conjure up a new threat somewhere and find it fast. First they tried painting dark clouds in the shape of international drug dealing. For some reason that didn't quite have the cachet of an enemy nuclear state, so they had to look elsewhere. Now they've finally got their ideal enemy. Terrorists. They are apparently everywhere, but can't be found. That means there's plenty of work to be done in defending the nation, the money keeps coming in, and motivation is high. Again, the United States of America is a force to be reckoned with.

Although it's even more fun to pick on US foreign policy than on French farmers, we need to remember that more than anything we are now talking about ourselves and what motivates us. Lots of people build their lives on just such threat-based thinking and manage to create great drama out of this or that. It is the source of their vitality. Yet, if they chose to, they could be living happy and satisfying lives working on their own Linux, without wasting their energy on the artificial drama with which they surround everything.

To me, Linus Torvalds' example of tolerance shows great insight. As a talented programmer he cannot accept programs with bugs on his own computer, but their existence as such does not bother him. He can do a better job of writing code himself and is happy with the work he does. At the same time, it wouldn't bother him at all if everybody else wanted to use Windows instead of Linux. After all, that's not his problem. In a world of power struggles and perceived threats, Linus's tolerant attitude is breath of fresh air and an open source of peace of mind for everyone.

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