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Democratic Centralism for Organizing Groups

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The 11th part of The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond.

11. The Social Context of Open-Source Software

Gerald Weinberg

Gerald Weinberg

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author’s everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:

18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

So it was with Carl Harris and the ancestral popclient, and so with me and fetchmail. But this has been understood for a long time. The interesting point, the point that the histories of Linux and fetchmail seem to demand we focus on, is the next stage—the evolution of software in the presence of a large and active community of users and co-developers.

In The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks observed that programmer time is not fungible; adding developers to a late software project makes it later. As we’ve seen previously, he argued that the complexity and communication costs of a project rise with the square of the number of developers, while work done only rises linearly. Brooks’s Law has been widely regarded as a truism. But we’ve examined in this essay an number of ways in which the process of open-source development falsifies the assumptions behind it—and, empirically, if Brooks’s Law were the whole picture Linux would be impossible.

Gerald Weinberg’s classic The Psychology of Computer Programming supplied what, in hindsight, we can see as a vital correction to Brooks. In his discussion of “egoless programming”, Weinberg observed that in shops where developers are not territorial about their code, and encourage other people to look for bugs and potential improvements in it, improvement happens dramatically faster than elsewhere. (Recently, Kent Beck’s ‘extreme programming’ technique of deploying coders in pairs looking over one another’s shoulders might be seen as an attempt to force this effect.)

Weinberg’s choice of terminology has perhaps prevented his analysis from gaining the acceptance it deserved—one has to smile at the thought of describing Internet hackers as “egoless”. But I think his argument looks more compelling today than ever.

The bazaar method, by harnessing the full power of the “egoless programming” effect, strongly mitigates the effect of Brooks’s Law. The principle behind Brooks’s Law is not repealed, but given a large developer population and cheap communications its effects can be swamped by competing nonlinearities that are not otherwise visible. This resembles the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics—the older system is still valid at low energies, but if you push mass and velocity high enough you get surprises like nuclear explosions or Linux.

Newton and Einstein

This resembles the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics—the older system is still valid at low energies, but if you push mass and velocity high enough you get surprises like nuclear explosions or Linux.

The history of Unix should have prepared us for what we’re learning from Linux (and what I’ve verified experimentally on a smaller scale by deliberately copying Linus’s methods [EGCS]). That is, while coding remains an essentially solitary activity, the really great hacks come from harnessing the attention and brainpower of entire communities. The developer who uses only his or her own brain in a closed project is going to fall behind the developer who knows how to create an open, evolutionary context in which feedback exploring the design space, code contributions, bug-spotting, and other improvements come from from hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people.

But the traditional Unix world was prevented from pushing this approach to the ultimate by several factors. One was the legal constraints of various licenses, trade secrets, and commercial interests. Another (in hindsight) was that the Internet wasn’t yet good enough.

Before cheap Internet, there were some geographically compact communities where the culture encouraged Weinberg’s “egoless” programming, and a developer could easily attract a lot of skilled kibitzers and co-developers. Bell Labs, the MIT AI and LCS labs, UC Berkeley—these became the home of innovations that are legendary and still potent.

Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993–1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible.

Pyotr Alexeyvich Kropotkin

Pyotr Alexeyvich Kropotkin

While cheap Internet was a necessary condition for the Linux model to evolve, I think it was not by itself a sufficient condition. Another vital factor was the development of a leadership style and set of cooperative customs that could allow developers to attract co-developers and get maximum leverage out of the medium.

But what is this leadership style and what are these customs? They cannot be based on power relationships—and even if they could be, leadership by coercion would not produce the results we see. Weinberg quotes the autobiography of the 19th-century Russian anarchist Pyotr Alexeyvich Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist to good effect on this subject:

Having been brought up in a serf-owner’s family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with [free] men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills.

The “severe effort of many converging wills” is precisely what a project like Linux requires—and the “principle of command” is effectively impossible to apply among volunteers in the anarchist’s paradise we call the Internet. To operate and compete effectively, hackers who want to lead collaborative projects have to learn how to recruit and energize effective communities of interest in the mode vaguely suggested by Kropotkin’s “principle of understanding”. They must learn to use Linus’s Law.[SP]

Earlier I referred to the “Delphi effect” as a possible explanation for Linus’s Law. But more powerful analogies to adaptive systems in biology and economics also irresistibly suggest themselves. The Linux world behaves in many respects like a free market or an ecology, a collection of selfish agents attempting to maximize utility which in the process produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved. Here, then, is the place to seek the “principle of understanding”.

The “utility function” Linux hackers are maximizing is not classically economic, but is the intangible of their own ego satisfaction and reputation among other hackers. (One may call their motivation “altruistic”, but this ignores the fact that altruism is itself a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist). Voluntary cultures that work this way are not actually uncommon; one other in which I have long participated is science fiction fandom, which unlike hackerdom has long explicitly recognized “egoboo” (ego-boosting, or the enhancement of one’s reputation among other fans) as the basic drive behind volunteer activity.

Linus Torvalds

Linus, by successfully positioning himself as the gatekeeper of a project in which the development is mostly done by others, and nurturing interest in the project until it became self-sustaining, has shown an acute grasp of Kropotkin’s “principle of shared understanding”

Linus, by successfully positioning himself as the gatekeeper of a project in which the development is mostly done by others, and nurturing interest in the project until it became self-sustaining, has shown an acute grasp of Kropotkin’s “principle of shared understanding”. This quasi-economic view of the Linux world enables us to see how that understanding is applied.

We may view Linus’s method as a way to create an efficient market in “egoboo”—to connect the selfishness of individual hackers as firmly as possible to difficult ends that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation. With the fetchmail project I have shown (albeit on a smaller scale) that his methods can be duplicated with good results. Perhaps I have even done it a bit more consciously and systematically than he.

Many people (especially those who politically distrust free markets) would expect a culture of self-directed egoists to be fragmented, territorial, wasteful, secretive, and hostile. But this expectation is clearly falsified by (to give just one example) the stunning variety, quality, and depth of Linux documentation. It is a hallowed given that programmers hate documenting; how is it, then, that Linux hackers generate so much documentation? Evidently Linux’s free market in egoboo works better to produce virtuous, other-directed behavior than the massively-funded documentation shops of commercial software producers.

Both the fetchmail and Linux kernel projects show that by properly rewarding the egos of many other hackers, a strong developer/coordinator can use the Internet to capture the benefits of having lots of co-developers without having a project collapse into a chaotic mess. So to Brooks’s Law I counter-propose the following:

19: Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

I think the future of open-source software will increasingly belong to people who know how to play Linus’s game, people who leave behind the cathedral and embrace the bazaar. This is not to say that individual vision and brilliance will no longer matter; rather, I think that the cutting edge of open-source software will belong to people who start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the effective construction of voluntary communities of interest.

Perhaps this is not only the future of open-source software. No closed-source developer can match the pool of talent the Linux community can bring to bear on a problem. Very few could afford even to hire the more than 200 (1999: 600, 2000: 800) people who have contributed to fetchmail!

Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software “hoarding” is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.


[EGCS] We now have history on a project that, in several ways, may provide a more indicative test of the bazaar premise than fetchmail; EGCS, the Experimental GNU Compiler System.

This project was announced in mid-August of 1997 as a conscious attempt to apply the ideas in the early public versions of The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The project founders felt that the development of GCC, the Gnu C Compiler, had been stagnating. For about twenty months afterwards, GCC and EGCS continued as parallel products—both drawing from the same Internet developer population, both starting from the same GCC source base, both using pretty much the same Unix toolsets and development environment. The projects differed only in that EGCS consciously tried to apply the bazaar tactics I have previously described, while GCC retained a more cathedral-like organization with a closed developer group and infrequent releases.

This was about as close to a controlled experiment as one could ask for, and the results were dramatic. Within months, the EGCS versions had pulled substantially ahead in features; better optimization, better support for FORTRAN and C++. Many people found the EGCS development snapshots to be more reliable than the most recent stable version of GCC, and major Linux distributions began to switch to EGCS.

In April of 1999, the Free Software Foundation (the official sponsors of GCC) dissolved the original GCC development group and officially handed control of the project to the the EGCS steering team.

[SP] Of course, Kropotkin’s critique and Linus’s Law raise some wider issues about the cybernetics of social organizations. Another folk theorem of software engineering suggests one of them; Conway’s Law—commonly stated as “If you have four groups working on a compiler, you’ll get a 4-pass compiler”. The original statement was more general: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” We might put it more succinctly as “The means determine the ends”, or even “Process becomes product”.

It is accordingly worth noting that in the open-source community organizational form and function match on many levels. The network is everything and everywhere: not just the Internet, but the people doing the work form a distributed, loosely coupled, peer-to-peer network that provides multiple redundancy and degrades very gracefully. In both networks, each node is important only to the extent that other nodes want to cooperate with it.

The peer-to-peer part is essential to the community’s astonishing productivity. The point Kropotkin was trying to make about power relationships is developed further by the `SNAFU Principle’: “True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth.” Creative teamwork utterly depends on true communication and is thus very seriously hindered by the presence of power relationships. The open-source community, effectively free of such power relationships, is teaching us by contrast how dreadfully much they cost in bugs, in lowered productivity, and in lost opportunities.

Further, the SNAFU principle predicts in authoritarian organizations a progressive disconnect between decision-makers and reality, as more and more of the input to those who decide tends to become pleasant lies. The way this plays out in conventional software development is easy to see; there are strong incentives for the inferiors to hide, ignore, and minimize problems. When this process becomes product, software is a disaster.

(to be continued)

Click here to read the other parts of The Cathedral and The Bazaar

Series Navigation<< Charming Developers to Make Great SoftwareRecruiting the Best for a Project >>

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