Posted 23 May 2016
Bryan Behrenshausen (Red Hat)
Nineteen years ago this week, at an annual meeting of Linux-Kongress in Bavaria, an American programmer named Eric Raymond delivered the first version of a working paper he called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” According to Raymond, the exploratory and largely speculative account of some curious new programming practices contained “no really fundamental discovery.”
But it brought the house down.
“The fact that it was received with rapt attention and thunderous applause by an audience in which there were very few native speakers of English seemed to confirm that I was onto something,” Raymond wrote a year later, as his treatise blossomed into a book. Nearly two decades after that early-evening presentation in Bavaria, The Cathedral and the Bazaar continues to move people. Now, however, it’s not so much a crystal ball as it is an historical document, a kind of Urtext that chronicles the primordial days of a movement—something Raymond and his boosters would eventually call “open source.” The paper’s role in Netscape’s decision to release the source code for its web browser has cemented its place in the annals of software history. References to it are all but inescapable.
As Raymond’s work celebrates its 19th anniversary, it’s bound to encounter its fair share of critiques. After all, those have never been in short supply. The impulse to weigh in—to analyze Raymond’s tasseography and assess what he was really “on to,” if anything—is always tempting at milestones like this one. Did Raymond really predict the future of software development? Did his vision survive encounter with reality?
Here’s the thing: Those questions miss the point.
Whether Raymond’s insights hold true—whether they “accurately” describe the contemporary political, social, and economic conditions for open source anything—are inconsequential in light of the way The Cathedral and the Bazaar actually functions today. Quite simply, what the book says is not nearly as important as what it does.
Raymond understands this. He once called The Cathedral and the Bazaar a work of “memetic engineering” the purpose of which was not merely reflecting something but creating it. “What is novel in the paper is not the facts,” he writes, “but those metaphors and the narrative—a simple, powerful story that encouraged the reader to the see the facts in a new way.” The Cathedral and the Bazaar’s most important contribution to the nascent open source movement was not the infallibility of its arguments but the sense of identity it generated.
That’s what brought Raymond’s audiences to their feet, and it’s what continues to draw people to the book after so many years (centuries, really, in software years): the work’s ability to galvanize a community.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar spins a compelling vision for the role upstart hackers will play in a world that may once have shunned—but now desperately needs—them. Its faith in a problem-solving multitude able to outperform and outmaneuver slow and oppressive structures (both material and ideological) is stirring. And its depiction of a world teeming with loosely-linked nodes of creativity drawn together through the joint work of architecting the future still resonates, as hackers solemnly exchange their dogeared copies of the book that speaks to them. The Cathedral and the Bazaar is a cultural artifact more than anything else, something a group uses, as Raymond puts it, “to explain itself to itself.”
In this way, Gabriella Coleman argues, hackers are no different than any other group attempting to to give itself a history, direction, and purpose—in short, an identity, one “acquired at progressively younger ages because of access to the Internet” and the proliferation of conferences, meetups, user groups, and other mechanisms for reinforcing a sense of belonging to something outside oneself. Reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar is now a rite of passage, a ritual that marks one’s participation in a hallowed tradition.
This remains as true today as it was nineteen years ago. And it will remain so regardless of whether Raymond’s early inklings ultimately prove “correct.” The book endures as long as open source communities need to fashion an identity and legacy—as long as we’re all still here, explaining ourselves to ourselves.