I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s latest article, The Ignorance of Crowds, in the latest issue of Strategy & Business. (And it’s refreshing to note that Booz Allen Hamilton don’t appear to have constructed the traditional consultant paywall. For this relief much thanks.)
Carr makes a number of points succinctly and eloquently, and peppers them with relevant quotes:
Opensource tends to be “extraordinarily powerful way” to improve things that exist, but tends to be “less successful at creating exciting new programs from scratch”, and as a consequence “it’s an optimisation model rather than an invention model”
He quotes University of Michigan professor Scott Page as saying “when solving problems, diversity may matter as much as, or even more than, individual ability”, and extends this theme by saying “What an unorganised, fairly random group of people provides is not just a lot of eyeballs but a lot of different ways of seeing”
Eric Raymond, who is quoted extensively, is quoted as saying “debugging is parallelisable”;Â Carr builds on this, saying “all the debuggers have to do is to communicate their findings and fixes to some central authority, like Linus Torvalds
Based on optimisation not invention. Demonstrating the power of diversity. Depending on the capacity forÂ parallelisation. Principal characteristics of opensource. All well-made points, not all new but definitely well structured and articulated, and worthy of further analysis.
Carr then goes on to look at what he considers some key limitations, again derived at least in part from Raymond’s work.Â He claims that “peer production works best with routine or narrowly defined tasks….. not well suited to a job that requires a lot of coordination among the participants… the crowd’s size and diversity would turn from a strength to a weakness, and the speed advantage would be lost”. He goes on to suggest that opensource “works best when the labor donated or partially subsidised”. He then asserts that “the opensource model — when it works effectively — is not as egalitarian or democratic as it is often made out to be.”
There’s a lot of good stuff in the article, go read it for yourself. I even agree with most of it, and will spend time masticating over the article at leisure. But. And it’s a mid-sized but.
I think there’s one key aspect he misses, or rather doesn’t do justice to. And that is this:
We shouldn’t dismiss lightly the propensity for opensource to innovate, to augment innovation and to accelerate innovation, for the following reasons:
The diversity inherent in the crowd creates long-tail effects, and this causes the bazaar to come up with stuff that the cathedral wouldn’t consider; in cases where the cathedral does consider the innovation, the bazaar is often faster and cheaper; and finally, while tight coordination by central authority seems a worthwhile thing, we should not forget the number of camels designed by committees.
In fact that’s one of the key stanchions of opensource communities. They don’t do camels.Â