Pondering the bazaar, in context of the cathedral

By | December 9, 2013

Someone did me a favour, back in 2008, when I was requested to synthesize the first chapter of Eric Raymond’s book for a workshop in Bellagio. This is best introduced by the first paragraph from Wikipedia:

The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (abbreviated CatB) is an essay by Eric S. Raymond on software engineering methods, based on his observations of the Linux kernel development process and his experiences managing an open source project, fetchmail. It examines the struggle between top-down and bottom-up design. It was first presented by the author at the Linux Kongress on May 27, 1997 in Würzburg and was published as part of a book of the same name in 1999.

 Raymond frames his concept well, from the first chapter:

Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew. I had been preaching the Unix gospel of small tools, rapid prototyping and evolutionary programming for years. But I also believed there was a certain critical complexity above which a more centralized, a priori approach was required. I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

Linus Torvalds’s style of development—release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity—came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock. As I learned my way around, I worked hard not just at individual projects, but also at trying to understand why 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.

To say that I have been forcibly reminded of these words is an understatement. It has only been on re-reading them again do I come to realize how much of this Bazaar method is just plain Finnish teamwork? When everybody is clear on what the big project is supposed to do, they just go ahead and do what they think they should add, their own interest areas, to the whole.

This is synergy. The whole pattern is a meta thing that emerges from the weft and weave of single coloured threads, woven in their entirety without knowledge whether the blue will become the sea in a carpet of waves or the sky in a wall hanging in brocade?

My next bit of field immersion, in Kenya again, this time to integrate all the lessons learnt through observation and listening over the past 3 years, and to take a look at the rural bazaar. Not just a produce market or livestock sales ground but the whole ecosystem of the farm’s inputs and outputs. It is the natural next step to push the fog away a little more to help our understanding of the rural economy as begun in the Prepaid Economy project of late 2008. 

Given that my focus would be a bazaar, I went back to Eric Raymond’s essay to see what he said about his lessons learnt. What I recognized, then, happening to my perspective or frame of vision, was that it was undergoing the natural flux of a fundamental transitional shift in frame of reference.

From the individual to the community.

And so, our user centeredness would not simply be focusing on individual users, as representatives of their particular segment or whatever, but also integrating that into a sense making of the whole ecosystem. Without this, we believe that any solution we may offer, that is based on today’s free, easy communications for social networks that are already gaining familiarity in rural African locales (Facebook! Twitter! Whatsapp?) will be doomed to fail from the start.

What we have been calling the bazaar, is the hyper local social community’s entrepreneurs – whether of the spirit, like the ingenuity of the laid off agricultural extension worker to turn his regular route into “patients” that he consults with like a “farm doctor” and charges 500 bob for a “house call”; or of the tangible kind, the youth who’re self organizing into service providers in the informal value chain between the farm and the kitchen.

How different is it from that which Raymond describes as the “bazaar” and how much is closer to the “market” if one takes that to be the standard model from business and economics and promotes competition over cooperation? 

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