The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Open Source

I’m at a leadership seminar near Los Angeles this week and today two teams engaged in an exercise that was remarkably reminiscent of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Though it clearly hit the mark for me with lessons as a leader, it also provided me with an unexpected twist: I thought alot about open source software and the cooperation vs. individual gain that this development paradigm represents.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma it is assumed that each individual player (“prisoner”) is trying to maximize his or her own advantage, without concern for the well-being of the other player. The classical prisoner’s dilemma (PD) is as follows:

Two suspects A, B are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and having separated both prisoners, visit each of them and offer the same deal: if one turns evidence against the other and the other remains silent, the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence and the betrayer goes free. If both stay silent, the police can only give both prisoners 6 months for a minor charge. If both betray each other, they receive a 2-year sentence each.

The win-win is if both prisoner’s cooperate rather than defect (i.e., rat out the other)…though there are clear incentives to defect. In today’s leadership exercise, I was on the team that defected (though I was a dissenter) and, for some reason, it made me think about open source software and the “why” and “how” a diverse community of coders could somehow come together and cooperate on such a massive scale.

Developers have to decide — on an operating system or application — should they cooperate or defect? Invest energy and effort in development of an open source project or one for pay? Take a peek at this too.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.