The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental RevolutionaryThe Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of years from now, if future historians were to search for a manifesto of the open source movement, the Cathedral and the Bazaar would likely be the text that they would settle on. Though somewhat dated now (much of it referencing the late 90s and early 2000s) particularly in the fast moving world of information technology, the book is made up of a series of essays by Eric S Raymond - a programmer and 'hacker' in the true sense of the word (technically adept and creative problem solver). In a series of essays he outlines everything the open source movement stands for and why we can all benefit from its work.

In contrast to Richard Stallman?s more ethical and somewhat ideological case for free and open source software (FOSS), Raymond adopts a more pragmatic approach that aims to attract rather than alienate and scare the corporate world. Despite their differences, Raymond and Stallman can still be seen as the philosopher-engineers that form the intellectual backbone of FOSS. software is an increasingly critical factor in the world economy and in the strategic calculations of businesses.

As Raymond reminds us, software increasingly plays a crucial role in all areas of our lives - in everything from the workplace, to cars, devices at home - and in the future, likely those in our clothes and our bodies.

While coding remains an essentially solitary activity, the really great hacks come from harnessing the attention and brainpower of entire communities.

In looking at why anyone would want to initially give away their time and efforts for free, he draws from the worlds of psychology, anthropology and economics. As he makes clear, this form of open collaboration isn't about some unrealistic utopian ideal, but rational self-interest. In a sense, one might say it's the application of libertarian principles to the world of software.

The Linux world behaves in many respects like a free market or an ecology, a collection of selfish agents attempting to maximize utility which in the process produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved.

Work psychology is also touched upon, with Raymond arguing that the open source community has fun doing what it does and that 'enjoyment predicts efficiency'.

It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source's success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.

Many of the points raised will also be of interest to those involved in fostering collaboration, not only for software development, but in other fields too.

The most important feature of Linux, however was not technical but sociological...Quality was maintained not by rigid standards or autocracy but by the naively simple strategy of releasing every week and getting feedback from hundreds of users within days, creating a rapid Darwinian selection on the mutations introduced by developers...The strongest argument the open source community has is that decentralized peer review trumps all the conventional methods for trying to ensure that details don't get slipped.

Further delving into anthropology and economics, he argues that the open source community operates similar to what anthropologists describe as 'gift cultures'.

In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

In essence, within such a culture, competitive success is determined by prestige among one's peers. Prestige, in turn, is determined by the fruits of one's labour. The better your work, the more likely you are to attract attention and cooperation.

One of the more important points that Raymond raises in the book is that software is always a service rather than a finished manufactured product. Even before the term 'Software as a Service' (Saas) was coined, we still expected developers to provide updates, bug fixes and other support services. The multitude of services, coupled with the freedom and security that it provides for the end user, are where the open source model particularly excels and can monetise its efforts.

No software consumer will rationally choose to lock itself into a supplier-controlled monopoly by becoming dependent on closed source if any open source alternative is available. This argument gains force as the software becomes more critical to the software consumer's business - the more vital it is, the less the consumer can tolerate having it controlled by an outside party...depending on closed source code is an unacceptable strategic business risk.

Once again he draws on economics and highlights the importance of information being freely available in markets. Open access to information becomes essential to the rise of higher quality goods.

In general, not just in software, secrecy is the enemy of quality.

There are of course many more points raised in favour of going open source, but while much of the book is dedicated to software, it's practically impossible to come away without considering the wider applications of the open source methodology. Why not use it as a management philosophy for business or even government? Raymond alludes to this in his writing, but clearly he doesn't want this to distract from the core efforts in the world of software.

...the success of open source does call into some question the utility of command-and-control systems, of secrecy, of centralization, and of certain kinds of intellectual property. It would be almost disingenuous not to admit that it suggests (or at least harmonizes with) a broadly libertarian view of the proper relationship between individuals and institutions.

Given the ongoing success of Linux and open source software, it's clear that we are seeing an ongoing evolution in the world of software, suggesting a Darwinian advantage for the free and open source model. While The Cathedral and the Bazaar is clearly essential reading for the IT world, it deserves attention from the general public too, mainly due to the central role that software will continue to play in our everyday lives.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.