The Ignorance of Crowds

The Ignorance of Crowds
Nicholas G. Carr
Strategy+Business, Summer 2007

In 1997, a software programmer named Eric Raymond presented a paper at a technology conference in Würzburg, Germany.  Titled “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” the paper caused immediate stir, and it is now widely considered one of the seminal documents in the history of the software industry.

As the author explains in “The Ignorance of Crowds,” in the Summer 2007 Strategy+ Business, Raymond’s subject was the open source software movement, as exemplified by its most famous product, the Linux operating system.

Carr is the best-selling author of The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, as well as the previous books Does IT Matter?  Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, and The Big Switch:  Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.

Open source projects, as Raymond pointed out, represented a radically new method of software development.  Traditionally, sophisticated programs had always been “built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation.”

An open source project, in contrast, was the product of a large and informal community of volunteers who “seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches.”

What was amazing, Raymond wrote, was that “the Linux world not only didn’t fly apart in confusion but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.”  The bazaar model of “peer production” was unthinkable before the Internet came along.  It was only when software programmers around the world gained access to a cheap, high-speed communication network that they could start sharing their code quickly.

The Net formed the thoroughfare of the bazaar.  But it wasn’t open only to software engineers.  It was open to every person and to every company.  The Net brought the bazaar, and its peer production model, right up to the doors of every business in the world.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Raymond’s metaphor soon came to be applied far more broadly than he originally intended.

Connected to the global masses through the Internet, companies no longer had to pursue innovation in isolation.  They had the option of replacing the traditional, closed cathedral model with the new, open bazaar model.

Even as the corporate world has begun to embrace the idea of the bazaar as a foru...