The Bizarre Cathedral

5/31/2007 "The Ignorance of Crowds", by Nicholas G. Carr,

The open source model can play an important role in innovation, but know its limitations.

Ten years ago, on May 22, 1997, a little-known software programmer from Pennsylvania named Eric Raymond presented a paper at a technology conference in Würzburg, Germany. Titled “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” the paper caused an immediate stir, and its renown has only grown in the years since. It is now widely considered one of the seminal documents in the history of the software industry.

Raymond’s subject was the open source software movement, as exemplified by what was then — and still is — its most famous product, the Linux operating system. Open source projects, he pointed out, represented a radically new method of software development. Traditionally, sophisticated programs had always been “built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation.” An open source project, in contrast, was the product of a large and informal community of volunteers who in aggregate “seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches.” What was amazing, Raymond wrote, was that “the Linux world not only didn’t fly apart in confusion but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.”

The bazaar model of “peer production” was unthinkable before the Internet came along. It was only when software programmers around the world gained access to a cheap, high-speed communication network that they could start sharing their code in a speedy and efficient manner. As Raymond observed, it was probably not a coincidence “that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993–1994 that saw [an] explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet.” The Net formed the thoroughfare of the bazaar.