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A Contrarian View of Open Source

by Bruce Sterling
08/06/2002

Editor's Note: At the recent O'Reilly Open Source Convention, writer Bruce Sterling held court in a conference room far too small to hold all of the people who wanted to hear him. Below is the text of this talk, which was presented on July 26, 2002.

Bruce Sterling: Thanks for showing up to see the obligatory novelist at this gig.

It's very touching of you to take the trouble to watch me get some emotional issues off my chest.

You know, I don't write code. I don't think I'm ever going to write any code. It just amazes me how often people who know absolutely nothing about code want to tell software people their business. "Why don't they just," that's the standard phraseology. "Why don't they just" code up something-or-other. Whenever I hear that, frankly, I just want to slap the living shit out of those people.

That's like people whose fingers are covered with diamonds complaining about the easy lives of diamond miners.

You're, like, seven miles down in this diamond mine, and these cats are laboring, laboring with these pickaxes and blasting caps and giant grinding machines. And it's like: "Why don't you people just put in a tomato garden down here? Don't you like fresh air in this diamond mine? How about some zinnias and daisies? You over there, with the carpal tunnel wristbands -- you sure look pale, fella! Don't you like the sunshine?"

They don't like to confront the sweat, and the labor, the human suffering ... Even people who are in the industry don't like to talk about what a massive drag it is, to sit there, grinding code, at 3 a.m., as your eyes, and your wrists, and your spine, all slowly give out. Everybody has to come up with these farfetched, elegant, literary metaphors to describe this process.

Stuff like The Cathedral & the Bazaar. Now, I get it about being the bazaar. I'm a science fiction writer, I got no problem at all with bizarre stuff. But commercial software? Microsoft? As a cathedral?

Have you ever seen a cathedral? Cathedrals are medieval religious centers where people do penance and take vows of poverty. They worship relics of the holy dead in there. Microsoft is a commercial software company. It's the commercial software company. It's got to be about the least cathedral-like structure known to humankind.

When you go into a cathedral, you don't read shrink-wrap licenses. There are no developers' documents in there. You've gotta read stuff like the Bible in a cathedral.

And it's an interesting book, the Bible. Not one word about software in it. It's got all these obscure parables and weird war stories and such.

Like the story of Jesus Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple. I know this is kinda hard for contemporary people to get their heads around, but Jesus Christ used to beat people up with a whip for being capitalists. He chased the moneylenders out of the sacred precincts. They were extremely alarmed by this. They were screaming stuff, like "Hey wow! The Prince of Peace is beating the living crap out of us!" He didn't even claim that they were crooked moneylenders in the temple, it's not like they were Enron or anything. It's just -- the very idea that there should be any commercial activity whatsoever in a cathedral -- this was enough to make the world's best-known prophet and pacifist philosopher completely blow his top.

This interesting divine perspective is kinda overlooked in Eric Raymond's metaphorical treatments, I'm noticing.

When you look at the way Open Source plays out in our society, you get a rather traditional industrial dynamic, very early-20th-century.

It's this classic artisans-versus-factory model. It's not about a bazaar. Because bazaars are pre-industrial, they're swarming with crooked rug merchants, and pickpockets, and lepers straight out of the Arabian Nights. Open Source isn't about being some kind of canny rug merchant with an eye out to make some fast dough. Open Source, basically, is about hanging out with the cool guys.

It's very tribal, and it's very fraternal. It's all about Eric, and Linus, and RMS, and Tim and Bruce and Tom and Larry. These are guru charisma guys. They're like artists, like guys running an art movement. Guys who dress up with halos and wear wizard hats. That form of organization is not a bazaar. It's not a cathedral. But it nevertheless has some distinct advantages. Because if you're in a cathedral, then you have to wear this holy uniform all the time. If you're in a bazaar, you have to stake out this patch of ground and keep it, and defend it, or just get overwhelmed by other guys greedier than you.

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