One hugely influential piece of modern writing is Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“:the central metaphor contrasts huge, monolithic, closed-source software developments (i.e. “the Cathedral”) with agile, distributed, open-source software developments (i.e. “the Bazaar”).
Raymond’s metaphor is just a metaphor: but all the same, there are plenty of none-too-subtle quasi-religious overtones at play here, which tend to colour the whole argument in favour of the Bazaar (which is his point, basically).
In the spirit of Raymond’s Bazaar, I’ve been wondering for a while whether I could (effectively) open-source my history research. Because I’m not a tenured academic, I don’t need a steady stream of refereed papers to justify my position to a departmental head: my interest in (for example) the Voynich Manuscript is more or less entirely about scratching an historical itch. And so “going open source” is something that is actually feasible, even if the precise (technological) details of quite how to achieve this are as yet unclear.
What I have in mind would be broadly in the same vein as the Voynich “challenges” page I put up a few years ago, only 10x times more focused. This would take the form of an ever-evolving page of open research challenges, each with references to (and summaries of) any relevant papers and books, and with (here it gets a bit vague) contact details for other researchers looking at the same problem and/or some kind of online forum for discussing each challenge.
Essentially, Eric Raymond’s central claim is that if you raise a daring enough flag, people will follow it: and as I think there are compelling arguments for tackling each of the research challenges I have in mind, this seems like a good fit. However, I find Raymond’s “Bazaar” troubling, as it seems to me to be based on a kind of free-market wheeler-dealer economics model, whereby each of the entities functions independently… as if competitive market trading will always provide an optimal solution to any problem. Applying this kind of superficial economics cant to software development (or even to historical research) is largely nonsensical: it’s just a metaphor, there is no “market” per se to regulate. Besides, as the key problems in large-scale software development are mainly to do with collaboration rather than competition, there’s good reason to think that the Bazaar is a flawed metaphor.
In the real world, I suspect that the actual model opposing The Cathedral is (sadly) far too often instead The Pub Quiz Team – a near-random group of people hoping to work as a team, but only occasionally gelling in anything approaching a purposeful way. And I say this having last night been on a Berrylands pub quiz team that came last by a mile – unsurprisingly, I don’t like pub quizzes much.
Applying this idea to the main Voynich mailing list, what has unfortunately happened over the last five years is that it has somehow turned from something surprisingly close to Eric Raymond’s idealized Bazaar (lots of individual researchers doing their thing within an overall research programme, trading ideas rather than punches) to a bickering pub quiz team, which can’t even agree its team name, let alone the answers to any of the questions.
In just about every important way, then, the VMs mailing list (in its present form) encapsulates more or less all of the things I would like to avoid in an open-source collaborative history project. As with most enterprises, knowing what to avoid is a reasonable starting point, but bear with me while I try to work out those pesky details…