Linux Emergence

Here's a little bit about emergence/systems theory and open source, as promised in my `change process <http://tychoish.com/posts/theories-of-change>`_ post a while back.

I was reading this article about linux and complexity theory last week, which I think is a pretty good frame for any discussion of open source and linux from a systems approach. There are a few things that I had issue with. First, the article is 3+ years old, and so it doesn't have the benefit of seeing what's happened with ubuntu linux, netbooks, the AGPL, rails and web 2.0, let alone things like Drupal and the last two major iterations of Firefox, which for all their assorted faults have really changed the face of open source.

Secondly, the empirical study focuses on the kernel development, and takes the kernel to represent the entire Linux eco-system, which I think it doesn't do very well. Kernel development is really high level, really niche, and despite its size, represents so little of what people think about when they talk about "Linux." GNOME, KDE, the GNU Toolchain, X11, pyton/ruby/perl, let alone the superstrucutral elements that projects like Debian, Gentoo and Arch represent are really more important than the Kernel. Debian and Gentoo more or less work with various BSD kernels and given enough money--to inspire interest and caring--full BSD based releases wouldn't be technologically difficult. The dominance of the Linux Kernel in the free-operating system space is--I think largely the result of momentum and the fact that the kernel is damn good and that there's not a lot of a need for another kernel option.

In any case, the paper is in a lot of ways a 21st century review of Eric S. Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" paper. Raymond's argument is taken as a statement in favor of bottom up organization (Linux, and the bazaar) in open source projects, and the author uses this insight to explore kernel development with some good-old systems theory.

While it's very true that there isn't a monolithic organization in the Kernel development, it's not exactly a free for all. Linus (or whoever is at the top of the project) provides a measure of top-down structure. This makes it easier for contributions to bubble from the bottom up. I think it's no mistake that many open source projects have "dictator"-type leaders that are pretty consistent.

This says nothing of the barriers to entry for most kinds of development in the open source world, aren't trivial (commit access projects that use non-distributed version control; eg. Drupal), let alone the burden of engineering knowledge for Kernel-level development, and other lower level projects. These--largely--informal standards none the less, constrain what happens on the kernel development.

Even if a lot of the day to day work on the kernel isn't done by Linus himself, his presence, and the importance of his branch/tree gives structure. Particularly before the advent of git, but even now. And I'm not saying that this is a bad thing--quite the contrary, top down forces are often a good thing--but I do think that overly romantic depictions of open source development as being bottom-up/anarchical aren't productive.

Doest his mean that Linux is a Cathedral? Or that it's headed that way? Not at all. But I don't think that the Bazaar is necessarily as bottom-up as Raymond (and those that have followed) thought it was. Open source is also much more commercial now than it was ten or twenty years ago, that can't not have an impact.

Just thoughts...

Onward and Upward!

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