The cathedral, the bazaar, and the SNAFU principle

By | November 21, 2014

I've recently been exploring foundational ideas of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) culture, and I've found them relevant not only for software development, but also for academia. Here is something that I picked up for inspiration:

If you have no idea who Richard Stallman is, I recommend his TEDx talk on Free software, free society. I especially appreciate his point that teaching kids proprietary software is like teaching them to smoke – I arrived to the same conclusion years ago when I learned to use ESRI ArcGIS (a very expensive proprietary software), only to realize that after leaving university I couldn't afford to use it any more. And only then I realized that there are FOSS alternatives such as QGIS that are free and actually work better! So I wasted all that time learning to use something expensive that makes me dependent, while I should have been learning something that is free, open, and makes me independent.

I also recommend Eric S. Raymond's classic “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. The piece is a bit archaic, but still, it used to be very influential at the time, and for a reason. It came up with fresh view on how creative people can cooperate in non-hierarchical and non-controlled way (the bazaar style), and how this can effectively produce good stuff. Raymond shows it as an alternative to cathedral building corporate style of management, and he illustrates it using credible real-world examples.

I immediately saw university as a place where the bazaar style of cooperation should be especially encouraged, as long as the goal is to raise students to independence and to their full creative potential.

Also in Raymond's book, I found exceptionally perceptive the idea of SNAFU principle (standing for “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”) :

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.

Quoting Wikipedia:

In any hierarchy (business, government, military etc) people and employees inevitably distort the truth of reports when dealing with their superiors, in order to avoid any punishment for relaying bad news. As a result, the superiors often operate from a distorted view of the situation, sometimes resulting in poor results.

I don't think that society can be made hierarchy-free – this is something that we have learned the hard way already. However, Raymond's book made me think that people engaged in any creative cooperation, or in any cooperation that relies on accurate information transfer, should treat each other as equal. But do they? And do they in academia? Do professors treat PhD students as equal when working on a paper together? Do undergrads feel equal when asking a professor for an advice? Do principal investigators give unbiased reports of their achievements to grant agencies? And what is the best way to equalize power-biased communication channels in academia?

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