Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Not About Money (Part I)

I have a lot to say about this subject, so my next couple of posts will focus on it. I'm going to begin with a thought: given the extraordinary amounts of work done by professional to provide free services online for little or no profit (think Wikipedia, for example), could we see a world in which most groups work primarily to achieve an end other than money? What would their incentive be instead?

Once upon a time, about a year ago, I decided to stop playing video games all the time. I won't explain too much about the nature of my addiction, but suffice it to say that I didn't have a lot of free time between my real obligations and my virtual obsession. I was able to control the impulse to play as long as I was kept sufficiently busy in my studies/work, but as soon as I found some dead space, it was back to the computer screen.

I was vaguely aware of the loss of time that this constituted, but I didn't really realize its value. However, on the encouragement of a church leader, I decided to be a little less indulgent. In an unbelievably serendipitous coincidence, I found myself just days thereafter in a discussion with a close friend, Nate, who happens to be an artist. We were reflecting on how much good there is to do with our time, if we could only gain the proper motivation. From that discussion there emerged a project, that, though small, wrought a drastic change in my life.

My co-blogger's first project: "The Dude"
By Nathan Hardyman
The project was a blog. We called this blog "The C-Force" (I'll be the first to admit that this is a pretty cheesy name, but who cares?) as an implication of forced creativity, hence the c. The purpose of the blog was to artificially generate motivation to personal creative projects by supplying three things: an initial prompt, a due date, and accountability. For example, I would post a prompt, telling my friend to do some work, with just a couple things specified; my first prompt for him was to produce a chalk drawing on a dark canvas involving a human form in some way. His first prompt for me was a short story somehow dealing with a murder.

This blog was a perfect way to reorient my life. At the time I was on an internship in California, a day's drive from where my friend was, so the blog was a beautifully simple way to connect and share the works we had produced. As we took assignments from each other, we saw some very interesting works emerge. I don't think I produced anything quite as good as my first, the short story, but the quality wasn't the point. The whole point of this was practice; practice, that is, and creation.

I actually stayed up a few late nights on some of my projects and spent a bit of money on art supplies. I put a lot of time into what I produced. I didn't make any money off of it and most of it wasn't really seen by many people other than my friend and me. The blog is on hiatus for the moment, awaiting more joint attention from the administrators, but since then I have been much more involved in projects of creation rather than consumption. I spent some time building a guitar pedal from electrical components, and despite its being too loud I was satisfied with the result. I wrote some more short prose, and some friends of mine and I have a band. I am not expecting a monetary profit from any of this.

So why am I so motivated to take on these projects? I know in advance about the lack of profits. The easy answer would be that the things that I produce just make me feel good, that they are an escape or a therapy or something like that. But that doesn't really get down to the core of the issue. It ascribes a good feeling to the work but it fails to explain why the feeling is good. Nevertheless, I think few would be  really surprised to hear that I am motivated this way. Many people have hobbies like playing a little guitar, writing, and so forth despite their lack of potential to profit therefrom. We observe this; we are not surprised by it. But do we understand why?

What follows is an excellently presented talk based on the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink. It's long, but I guarantee you it's worth it.

So there it is. I am spontaneously motivated to do those things because I want to be able to direct my life, creating things as I desire; because I want to master difficult things; and perhaps because I even expect to contribute something to the larger population. This, presented so generally, throws off a great deal of my primitive economic expectations, and yet it makes sense.

Now you may have noticed that the speaker highlighted a few examples of groups that have exemplified or successfully exploited the three motivators that he mentioned; Interestingly enough, every group that he mentioned was computer- or internet-related. Does this mean that the three principles that the speaker explained are only applicable to the technological sphere? Probably not; I and others are motivated to do plenty of things on my own that have little if anything to do with computers. I'll suggest an alternative explanation: the fields of software development and those related are ideal environments to observe each of the incentives presented by the speaker.
1. Autonomy- There is an unexplored world of possibilities available to developers, coders, and so forth that they could certainly seek to discover independently of exterior guidance, given the proper permissions from employment (as demonstrated in the example of Atlassian in the video).
2. Mastery- Anyone would probably agree that computers are hard to master, and programming is even harder. I can attest that a great deal of satisfaction comes from accomplishing a task by means of programming. It takes a lot of time to really know how to code. Thus there is plenty of potential for mastery.
3. Purpose- There is so much to which people can contribute in the computer world (see all of the video examples) that helps others on a large scale either as an online resource or through online distribution.

Furthermore, seldom will a very large group of people willing to work on the same project be found geographically in a small area; internet- and computer-related projects are bigger, perhaps, because they lend themselves to growth through networking on a national or international scale.

So what do we see? I see an ideal sphere in which to bring people together to participate in the creation of massive and well-made resources for others at no personal profit and often at no profit to the organization. In essence, just as I was motivated to do my various hobbies regardless of gain, people are motivated to organize on a large scale with the same lack of expectation of gain. Wikipedia was and is the result of a giant collective hobby. If you take exception to this claim, please understand that I do not mean by the word "hobby" that the work is inconsequential.

Now if the projects that the video listed are any indicator, could we not potentially see other large projects emerge in place of ones that are generally for-profit? A few cafes have opened up donation-free branches that serve to allow the poor to eat and everyone to contribute voluntarily to the upkeep of the store. They don't make a profit, but they make enough to keep going. Clearly those running the place are motivated by a non-monetary incentive, like what I discussed, and this isn't even internet-related.

So who's to say that this desire for those three points won't spread out more, getting more and more people to work on projects for which they won't be paid? My big question is this: can those groups become an integral part of our economy, and how would those people support themselves? (Some speculation on answers in Part II, coming next post.)

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