Shades of greed & innovation

Posted on: July 14, 2009


James at Made by Many makes a compelling argument against a throwaway comment by Howard Rheingold:

“Greed helps innovation. Fear prevents it.”

However, James misses the angle that greed can be for many things, not just money. Indeed, we can be greedy for power, attention, comfort, recognition, achievement. Money is really, ultimately, only a symbollic representation of power. For any thoughtful, engaged global netizen, motivations can take many shades between financial reward and benevolence. In her award-winning thesis Evangelia Berdou looked at how a meritocracy develops in open-source communities. She found from her research:

a. that the gift and exchange economies are interdependent;

 b. that the boundaries between the gift and exchange economies are permeable and their respective needs are constantly negotiated in the context of projects;

 c. that legitimate peripheral participation and learning are shaped by the demands of production; 
 d. that programming and non-programming teams are distinctive in terms of their priorities, make up and rhythms of participation.

Thus I would argue we cannot conclude either way that greed is or isn’t stifling to innovation. Rather accept that we all have many motivations, some conflictual, that we may be greedy in more ways than one and that the interplay between our different needs, wants and desires, including that of helping others, is what leads us to those Eureka! moments.

Plate of money image by wai.ti


1 Response to "Shades of greed & innovation"

Thanks for the thoughful response.

It’s true that we can be greedy for things other than wealth, but greed for *anything* remains selfish and, above all, excessive. It’s wanting more than your fair share of recognition or whatever you’re looking to get out of your participation in an open source project. More than is fair can’t be good, can it?

I specifically didn’t mention open source (although it’s probably the most obvious counter example) because I think the altruism debate gets in the way.

The two examples I offered are people who are innovating and who make a living out of it, but who would go the extra mile to make something perfect even if there were no financial return on that additional quality. That, to my mind, is the antithesis of greed.

The greedy innovator would go for the most financially rewarding option, not the one that pleased them the most.

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