Friday, March 10, 2006

[geek][politics] The Cathedral and the Laboratory, part 2

So here's the part where I apologize to those of you who recognize the source of the title - Eric S. Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". I'm stretching the metaphor Raymond employed in his famous essay, but I think there are still plenty of parallels to be found. The Cathedral is more than a development methodology - it's a mindset. The Cathedral buttresses itself with dogma and top-down leadership. It sees itself as central to society - without its influence, anarchy and apostasy will rule the realm. To defy the revealed wisdom of the Cathedral is to invite banishment, or worse. The Cathedral sends out edicts, rules, injunctions that Must Be Obeyed. The Cathedral fears challenges and conflict, and values conformity. To challenge the Cathedral is to risk being burned at the stake. The Bazaar represents a far-less formalized command structure. There are rules to be observed and roles that are proscribed, but there is little centralization. Goods and services are valued and devalued based upon their quality as well as the persuasiveness of their purveyors. You can have quality products in the Bazaar and still fail if you aren't capable of selling them. Conversely, if you're charismatic or a smooth talker you can do quite well for yourself, regardless of the quality of your goods or services. But in the Bazaar, you are subjected to the scrutiny of the entire community. Your competitor can see your wares - he may not be able to see behind your counter to see if you are adulterating your product or inflating your claims, but he can directly compare your product to his and quantify the result. Try doing that in the Cathedral. The Bush Administration's approach to science is that of the Cathedral: their priests and prophets must control the message, and the message must conform to Cathedral Law. To disagree with the Cathedral is heresy; to be accepted into the priesthood, you must accept the Cathedral's dogma. No one can challenge the Cathedral's position publicly - there may be Byzantine struggles occuring, but they take place far from the public eye, deep within chambers closed to all but the highest level of initiates. No scripture will be accepted into the Cathedral's canon if it does not dovetail with the approved dogma; the veracity of a statement is secondary to its conformity to the norm. As with the Cathedral, so the Bazaar: where Raymond uses the Bazaar as a metaphor for the Free/Open Source Software movement, I also see it as describing a mindset. The scientific community taken as a whole, the Laboratory, is far more like the Bazaar. Ideas ebb and flow in response to all the actors. Coalitions form and disperse, products rise and fall in value, and everyone shares a common currency: knowledge. Information. Now I have no illusions about the scientific process. I've seen the feuds and petty atrocities that run throughout academia. And, like our so-called Free Market system, there are many 'Invisible Hands' at work trying to steer things towards their own advantage, denying competitors access to market share, denigrating the quality of competing wares. But by-and-large, there is Bazaar-like atmosphere in which this takes place. If you think your wares are superior to a competitor's, you are free to make your case to the entire Bazaar. Again, try that in the Cathedral and see how far it gets you. The Bush Administration is trying to bring the Bazaar under the control of the Cathedral. They only want Cathedral-sanctioned goods and services to be exchanged, regardless of their relative merit compared to alternative goods and services. But they're ignoring the structural weakness of the Cathedral: it becomes infinitely harder to identify problems if you have surrounded yourself with true believers. If your dogma dictates a course of action that will ultimately lead to catastrophe, who will have the courage (or ability) to stand up and say so? Andrew Sullivan is right to criticize the Bush Administration for their policies regarding emergency contraception, HPV & HIV. It would have been better had he listened to what we were saying five years ago; in lieu of that, an apology would be nice, but I'm not holding my breath. What infuriates me about Sullivan and his ilk is their blind unwillingness to see how pervasive the rot is. His inability to see how systemic this rigid and unyielding preference for the Cathedral over the Bazaar, nay, at the expense of the Bazaar (or Laboratory, or Academy) is sadly typical of newly apostate members of the Cathedral. They are beginning to see the hypocrisy in embraces, but are unwilling to criticise it too much for fear of what that will say about themselves. In the end, the merchants in the Bazaar have far less power than the clergy in the Cathedral. They always have, and likely always will. Free trade in the Bazaar depends altogether too much upon the whims of the Cathedral, and today the Cathedral is insisting that the Bazaar submit itself without question to the Cathedral's rule. Who stands for the Bazaar? Currently, I hear many scattered and tiny voices, but from those who could (and should) be allies I hear half truths, lies, apologies, and silence. Why? Because preserving their own access to the Cathedral, either as syncophants and devotees now or priests and bishops in the future, is far more important to them.

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