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Eric Raymond -- On Originality and the Bazaar

Aug 01, 1999, 22:01 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

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Eric S. Raymond writes:

This is a public draft of a new section for "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". As always, comments and criticism are invited.

An issue related to whether one can start projects from zero in the bazaar style is whether the bazaar style is capable of supporting truly innovative work. Some claim that, lacking strong leadership, the bazaar can only handle the cloning and improvement of ideas already present at the engineering state of the art but is unable to push the state of the art. This argument was perhaps most infamously made by the Halloween Documents two embarrassing internal Microsoft memoranda written about the open-source phenomenon. The author compared Linux's development of a Unix-like OS to "chasing taillights", and opined "(once a project has achieved "parity" with the state-of-the-art), the level of management necessary to push towards new frontiers becomes massive."

There are serious errors of fact implied in this argument. Historically, the open-source community did not invent Emacs or the World Wide Web or the Internet itself by chasing taillights or being managed -- and in the present, there is so much innovative work going on that one is spoiled for choice. The GNOME project (to pick one of many) is pushing the state of the art in GUIs and object technology hard enough to have attracted considerable notice in the computer trade press well outside the Linux community. Other examples are legion, as a visit to Freshmeat on any given day will quickly prove.

But there is a more fundamental error in the implicit assumption that the cathedral model (or the bazaar model, or any other kind of management structure) can somehow make innovation happen reliably. This is nonsense. Gangs don't have breakthrough insights -- even volunteer groups of bazaar anarchists are usually incapable of genuine originality, let alone corporate committees of people with a survival stake in some status quo ante. Insight comes from individuals. The most their surrounding social machinery can ever hope to do is to be responsive to breakthrough insights -- to nourish and reward and rigorously test them instead of squashing them.

Some will characterize this as a romantic view, a reversion to outmoded lone-inventor stereotypes. Not so; I am not asserting that groups are incapable of developing breakthrough insights once they have been hatched; indeed, we learn from the peer-review process that groups are essential. Rather I am pointing out that the every such group development starts from -- is necessarily sparked by -- one good idea in one person's head. Cathedrals and bazaars and other social structures can catch that lightning and refine it, but they cannot make it on demand.

Therefore the root problem of innovation (in software, or anywhere else) is indeed how not to squash it -- but, even more fundamentally, it is how to grow lots of people who can have insights in the first place.

To suppose that cathedral-style development could manage this trick when the low entry barriers and process fluidity of the bazaar cannot would be absurd. If what it takes is one person with one good idea, then a social milieu in which one person can rapidly attract the cooperation of hundreds or thousands of others with that good idea is going inevitably to out-innovate any in which the person has to do a sales job to a hierarchy before he can work on it without risk of getting fired.

That, however, is a negative point. The reader would be better served by a positive one. I suggest, as an experiment, the following;

  1. Pick any cloded-source operating system competing with Linux, and a best source for accounts of current development work on it.
  2. Watch that source and Freshmeat for one month. Every day, count the number of release announcements on Freshmeat that you consider `original' work. Apply the same definition of `original' to announcements for that other OS and count them. If your definition is ``I know it when I see it'', that's not a problem for purposes of this test.
  3. Thirty days later, total up both figures.
The day I wrote this, Freshmeat carried twenty-two release announcements, of which three appear they might push state of the art in some respect, This was a slow day for Freshmeat, but I will be astonished if any reader reports as many as three likely innovations a month ion any closed-source channel.