My bazaar doesn't need your cathedral
January 7, 2013 3:39 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the essence of The Cathedral and the Bazaar in order to apply the understanding to an entirely different scenario where there is a struggle between top down and bottom up design. I have no programming knowledge after BASIC on DOS 1.0

I believe there's a valuable message in this essay (and subsequent book) which can be related to other areas where there is an inherent conflict between top down and bottom up design.

However, beyond being able to see and acknowledge this value, especially based on the simplified guidelines in the wikipedia page, I fear I'm getting tangled up in the specificities of programming and its needs and thus unable to extract or wholly understand the key insights or essence of the tale.

tl;dr I can't write about it (as a narrative) relating to a wholly different scenario (say, design for poor farmers for eg) without understanding it well enough. Pointers to other reading on this material or key chapters would also be gratefully appreciated.
posted by infini to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I am not convinced that in The Cathedral and the Bazaar Eric Raymond proposes any single unifying theory that adequately explains all of his guidelines for creating good open source software, but one possible generalization of The Cathedral and the Bazaar to other fields is the concept of the wisdom of the crowd. If that sounds like what you're looking for, I suggest reading James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody.
posted by RichardP at 4:21 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry but I don't agree that TCATB and program design have much to do with each other.

Top Down/Bottom Up are Software Engineering processes and in practice projects typically combine a lot of Top Down as a matter of course with varying degrees of bottom up.

TCATB is about whether the project is community "owned" or proprietary. In practice projects can drift from one to the other, i.e. starting Open Source and then evolving into Close Source or vice versa.
posted by w.fugawe at 4:27 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could have a read of "The Timeless Way of Building", by Christopher Alexander, in which he argues that architecture (at all scales from domestic homes right up to city planning level) is best carried out organically by the people who are living it, rather than being imposed on people by committees and Capital A Architects and so forth.

That's not exactly directly analogous to the Cathedral and the Bazaar but it is a similar kind of idea.
posted by emilyw at 4:37 AM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


It was a good though idealistic metaphor of two significant segments of a huge 'industry' but more a metaphor than a movement. If you look at specific successful projects they may not fit exactly. The Apache server is very bazaar but a product like Pentaho is more a single company. Or the medical "M" (formally mumps) world is commercial but seems to be quietly collaborative.
posted by sammyo at 5:07 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could have a read of "The Timeless Way of Building"

Alexander is indeed fantastic on this subject. Even better than The Timeless Way of Building is Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which applies bottom-up thinking to design as a response to functional requirement, and proposes a fascinating model for the iterative process. If I understand the problem correctly, I'd say it's definitely a more pertinent expression of your suggested solution than The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 5:20 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would say that a Wiki is the most obvious example of a bazaar system in a non-software setting.

(For whatever it's worth, the author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar has not always heeded his own advice. Linux oldtimers will recall the CML2 debacle, wherein -- to stretch a metaphor -- he built a one-man cathedral, then threw a hissy fit when others objected to razing a large area of their bazaar to make space for it.)
posted by pont at 5:32 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I fear I'm getting tangled up in the specificities of programming and its needs and thus unable to extract or wholly understand the key insights or essence of the tale.

It's a long time since I read TCATB but I think the problem you're having is that the valuable insights of the tale really are only relevant to software development.

The basic features of the bazaar model's success seem to be (this is my summary, not ESR's):
1. the "wisdom of the crowd" concept RichardP refers to;
2. that you can get people to put a lot of effort into doing things, with no expectation of material reward, if they are interesting enough and provide appropriate ego satisfaction (ESR's later essay Homesteading the Noosphere explored this further);
3. that the bugs in a piece of code are more likely to be found when lots of people are looking at it.

I don't think any of these ideas as an abstract proposition was really all that exciting in 1997. The interesting thing about TCATB was that it set out specific examples of projects (Linux and Fetchmail) that benefited from the bazaar approach and suggested ways of replicating their success, but the suggestions are pretty specific to software.

Also, the cathedral vs the bazaar isn't really a matter of top-down vs bottom-up design. The bazaar approach still requires a single person or small group to take charge and decide what's in and what's out - the chapter on necessary preconditions makes this clear. The difference is really in the degree of communication between the core developers and everyone else. A wiki is something else again, as it lacks the central gatekeeper role needed to make sure that the different parts of a piece of software work together properly.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:11 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I appreciate this helpful increase in my understanding of Raymond's work and can see the holes in my own thinking because of all of your comments.

I do have a question however, since the phrase The Cathedral and the Bazaar captures the essential challenge I wish to write upon, would it be a problem to use it in isolation and craft my own narrative ? That is, for eg, saying something like "hey you guys, you're building your cathedrals without noticing there's a bazaar out there?" and beyond a mention of the origins of the phrase, not refer to the original essay?

Are there not cases of essays or movies using the same titles but having very different content?
posted by infini at 7:15 AM on January 7, 2013


- to stretch a metaphor -- he built a one-man cathedral, then threw a hissy fit when others objected to razing a large area of their bazaar to make space for it.)

This is exactly the problem we need to document.

ps. thank you for memail
posted by infini at 7:16 AM on January 7, 2013


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