The Clothesline Principle is this: If you switch to partial solar energy production, you can look at your electricity bill, and say ‘oh, 30% of my electricity comes from solar!’ and feel good, and value that investment in getting off the grid. If you switch to using a clothesline for drying your clothes, you’ll probably not even realize your bill is a bit cheaper, and never account for that free work. This principle hits us in all kinds of ways, my favorite being that education of kids preventing all kinds of later problems with adults. Few counts health-savings from kids properly educated about health as part of health care reform. It’s hard to do.
One place this hits me personally is Open Source. I recently had a conversation with someone about the cost of software development. The question I was asked was “How can your company share thousands of dollars in software development product? That’s throwing money away.” I’ve worked in Open Source long enough, it was a bit hard to go back to first principles, and answer them. But when I did, the first thing I came back to was “First, because we save more than that by using Open Source to start with”.
That got me thinking about the Clothesline Principle. When we (for example) grab an awesome math library that is Open Source and incorporate in into a project, no one asks for how much it costs. There is no department meeting to debate it’s use vs value, and no one in PHB-land even notices. That huge chunk of value we just incorporated is largely left off the balance sheets, and off the radar. That is a mistake.
I’ve encouraged friends working with cooperatives and hackerspaces to track their time, and (if they have a great skillset) to submit or log ‘receipts’ for their time, at their market rate, with the total of the invoice. The submit it with a note ‘payment cancelled, work is donated’. It’s a bit annoying, but it’s a good way to make sure the non-profit or community group values the work (and you can use it on your taxes in a lot of situations, for a deduction).
I think the Open Source community needs to start doing something similar when we pull in Open Source projects to use as tools, or as part of a product. We should run KLOC on the code and email the finance department with a note ‘Using Project X for codebase. We just saved ???K in development costs’. It’s a disservice to our community, and to ourselves, to not track the amazing amount of value Open Source tools give us.