Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


Eric S. Raymond famously contrasted the ordered (but rigid) “Cathedral” of Big Software Development [e.g. Microsoft Windows] with the disordered (but dynamic) “Bazaar” of Open Source Software [e.g. Linux]. His intention was to try to demonstrate how the Bazaar approach is The Right Answer to the challenges of the modern world, and (conversely) how the Cathedral approach was dead in the water.

As I often tell my young son, anytime someone offers you an either-or choice, the chances are that you’re being conned (or at least coerced). Coke or Pepsi? Errrrm… I’ll have a nice glass of water, if that’s ok with you. So I think Raymond’s dichotomy is something of a forced-argument fallacy, in that by fixing the terms of reference around two massively distant poles, he was trying to make his argument seem more convincing than it actually was.

All the same, I agree it was good that Raymond opened up the whole open-closed debate, because the world of software has historically been very closed. But then again, a lot of software now seems to use open-source libraries on closed platforms (i.e. iOS), so it would seem that neither position actually “won”: rather, the whole idea of software became both more complex and more financially compromised. Even Linux (Raymond’s poster-child for the Bazaar) has itself become a heavily politicised and contested development area, with a tightly controlled feature “funnel” and significant corporate involvement.

The other big issue opened out by Raymond’s open-closed debate was whether the Cathedral-Bazaar / closed-open continuum could usefully be applied to anything apart from software. Having tried for several years to do this with historical research in an online forum, I can say with confidence that it simply doesn’t work. In that context, an online community degenerated into what was more like a third-rate Pub Quiz team, a rag-tag rabble which couldn’t even decide its own name, let alone work together towards a shared purpose.

All of which is why I found this interview with Jaron Lanier in the Smithsonian Magazine so interesting. Despite having helped ‘found’ many of the ideas & ideals of the World Wide Web, Lanier now seems to see it as a socially dysfunctional mess – as having transitioned from utopia to dystopia. Summarizing, he now feels that the endless trolling and schadenfreude gets in the way of any of the kind of positive virtual social interactions he hoped for from the Web, which he sees it as an imminent “social catastrophe”. He seems to see anonymity as a thing that gives people the power to destroy social capital far more readily and easily than anything else can build it.

Moreover, Lanier thinks that what started out as digital libertarianism (of ideas) has become a kind of incultured piracy (of digital property). And don’t get him started on the death of the middle class (which he seems to blame on disintermediation, but it’s not entirely clear how).

 “I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss  of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except  that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying  the economy.”

Perhaps the most audacious part of his argument is that he tries (inexactly, I think, but in broadly the right spirit) to connect rehypothecation with digital piracy – that somehow the virtual copiedness of piracy is the same as infinite rehypothecation.

“To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party.”

This is, I think, where Lanier’s argument train leaves most people’s rails: there may be parallels, sure, but did the web really cause the current (far from finished) Recession? Actually, I would argue that the Recession came about as a consequence of the laissez-faire financial deregulation set in motion by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but that ended up being so brutally amplified by commodities speculation during the period 2001-2007 that the resulting volatility caused the whole system to collapse under the pressure.

Computers played their part in that, sure, but the overall development arc was quite independent of the World Wide Web or anything virtual. Basically, “virtual” is a useful catch-all phrase for ‘non-physical system’, but it really doesn’t have anything like the rhetorical or logical power that Lanier is relying on for his argument.

I think Lanier sees Bad Stuff going on and wants to be The Canary Of Impending Doom: but this isn’t good enough. At any given moment, you can discern a heady mix of Good Stuff and Bad Stuff all around you, but only a pessimistic idealist would think that the Bad Stuff is going to win. The right question is surely how to give nudges to the Good Stuff to keep it all in some kind of ongoing dynamic balance, but I’m not sure Lanier is enough of a pragmatist to do that. Oh well!

For me, the Cathedral and the Bazaar are both unhelpfully idealistic ways of looking at the world, and I can’t help but conclude that Jaron Lanier views the Web in that and similar dichotomies (virtual-physical, wealthy-poor, political-naive etc). This is, however, a fairly impoverished weltanschauung, far from the nuanced realpolitik that holds sway in most human affairs.

I suspect that what is emerging as the major alternative to the Cathedral and the Bazaar is the Tank: a self-contained, self-reliant, compact, Nietzschean powerhouse. In an increasingly paralyzed and purposeless world, what I call a “tank” is a powerful unit with its own self-constructed epistemology and ideology, but where the powerlessness of its context magnifies its own power (relatively speaking).

In the US, the Tea Party movement was surely the first political tank: and perhaps UKIP will turn out to be the UK’s first political tank. By which I mean, the Tea Party and UKIP don’t seem to be built on strong arguments, but the paralysis of their opposition makes them relatively strong. Perhaps the Lean Startup “movement” is also a tank, made powerful largely by the paralysis of the startup funding landscape.

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Comments on: "The Cathedral, The Bazaar, and The Tank…" (5)

  1. Nick –

    Interesting post, however I see great value in the Cathedral/Bazaar paradigm relative to political governance. It seems to me that our entire political class ( perhaps even globally) argue for cathedral builds ( infrastructure build,we know best,top down,if we build it..etc…) all RPDM carry overs from the first industrial revolution, with solutions drawn from the 1930’s, driven by the belief that linear thinking can solve stochastic problems – simply tosh.

    I would argue that Cathedral days are over, like it or not we live in the age of the 21stCy Bazaar – when anybody can resource and do anything,cripple governments, destroy fiscal policy,corrupt the rule of law – anything. This is very scary and also very stimulating, it is perhaps the ultimate survival paradox.

    • Ian: true… up to a point. Politics will arguably always be a ‘cathedralic’ domain, insofar as politicians get voted in for making promises of certainty in an uncertain world, because most voters seem content to have issues framed in terms of such promises and politicians’ alleged accountability to those promises.

      What you’re referring to is a kind of diffuse anti-politics, which has always existed as a counterpoint to the ‘cathedrals’ of Westminster and Washington. I’m not sure if that’s actually a Bazaar or just people doing what politicians do without the bother of actually being voted in. 🙂

  2. Nick – don’t want to get into a dialect on this – merely think that observedly there is ever increasing authority that at a national economic level, generic ‘Cathedral’ builds are both outdated and unsuited to what I see as a new ‘Bazaar’ world – FINIS

  3. What’s the price?

  4. That was a bit enigmatic – Think tanks and lobby groups are arguably the two most destructive types of organisation on the planet, because they have no mechanism for stablilizing their own wants against a realistic perspective on limits of demand.

    Think-tanks have been behind the massive effort to deny global warming, and lacking even a basic standard of ethics – nothing is important but getting their own desires met – they are undermining our political, intellectual and physical integrity. Same for ‘government by lobby’ – it subverts the whole ethos of democracy and threatens us with worse than a return to the days of aristocratic rule: we’ll have the full nightmare of Plato’s fantasy world made real.

    Scholarship in the true sense can’t exist in a think-tank atmosphere without distortion and manipulation.

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