We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Cognition

The behavioral economics of free software

People who use and promote free software cite various reasons for their choice, but do those reasons tell the whole story? If, as a community, we want free software to continue to grow in popularity, especially in the mainstream, we should understand better the true reasons for choosing it—especially our own.

Some believe that it offers higher quality, that the availability of source code results in a better product with higher reliability. Although it’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of software, there are certainly instances where free software components have been judged superior to their proprietary counterparts. I’m not aware of any comprehensive analysis of the general case, though, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on both sides of the debate.

Others prefer it for humanitarian reasons, because it’s better for society or brings us closer to the world we want to live in. These are more difficult to analyze objectively, as they are closely linked to the individual, their circumstances and their belief system.

For developers, a popular reason is the possibility of modifying the software to suit their needs, as enshrined in the Free Software Foundation’s freedom 1. This is reasonable enough, though the practical value of this opportunity will vary greatly depending on the software and circumstances.

The list goes on: cost savings, educational benefits, universal availability, social rewards, etc.

The wealth of evidence of cognitive bias indicates that we should not take these preferences at face value. Not only are human choices seldom rational, they are rarely well understood even by the human themselves. When asked to explain our preferences, we often have a ready answer—indeed, we may never run out of reasons—but they may not withstand analysis. We have many different ways of fooling ourselves with regard to our own past decisions and held beliefs, as well as those of others.

Behavioral economics explores the way in which our irrational behavior affects economies, and the results are curious and subtle. For example, the riddle of experience versus memory (TED video), or the several examples in “The Marketplace of Perception” (Harvard Magazine article). I think it would be illuminating to examine free software through this lens, and consider that the vagaries of human perception may have a very strong influence on our choices.

Some questions for thought:

  • Does using free software make us happier? If so, why? If not, why do we use it anyway?
  • Do we believe in free software because we have a great experience using it, or because we feel good about having used it? (Daniel Kahneman explains the difference)
  • Why do we want other people to use free software? Is it only because we want them to share our preference, or because we will benefit ourselves, or do we believe they will appreciate it for their own reasons?

If you’re aware of any studies along these lines, I would be interested to read about them.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 25, 2010 at 10:42

Cognitive time travel through reminder lists

Making a list

Credit: guinnessgurl/pamelaadam

I make a lot of lists: lists of things to do, things to talk to someone about, things to write, and mistakes never to repeat. I use them to keep track of various aspects of my life, and to help me to “shift gears” to a new task or project by filling my mind with the work at hand.

List-keeping is generally regarded as boring administrative work, something only important to compulsive organizers. When a writer wants to portray a character as meticulous and dull, they need only brand them as a list-maker, with eyes bespectacled from years of squinting over their lists.

The reality of list-keeping is much more exciting: reminder lists are a mechanism for cognitive time travel. They allow us to transport information from the time when it occurs to us, to a time in the future when it will actually be useful. Like a wormhole, they connect distant points in spacetime (though unfortunately only in one direction, as in the Stargate universe).

Throughout my day, I will remember things I need to do, though not right away: an article which looks interesting, or someone I need to remember to call. Putting these items on a list frees my mind to keep going with whatever I’m doing, knowing that the idea is not lost. A common scenario for me is that I’m riding the tube, reading RSS feeds offline on my Android phone using NewsRob, and come across something I want to explore further. There is as yet no wireless service on the tube, so I can’t do anything but read, but I can send myself an email using K-9 which will be delivered later. At the other end of the wormhole, when I’m back online, I receive the email (usually at my computer) and pick up where I left off.

Traveling through time in your head may not be as exciting as flitting about in a TARDIS, but it is much more accessible, and genuinely rewarding.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 19, 2010 at 11:25