Saturday, March 13, 2010

Judaism, the Bazaar, Chaos, and the Internet

The Cathedral, the Bazaar, Chaos, the Internet and Judaism
 By David E. Y. Sarna
In Googled: The End of the World as We Know It[1], the fascinating insider’s tale of Google’s successes and challenges deftly written by Ken Auletta, we are reminded of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a seminal paper by Eric Steven Raymond, first delivered at a Linux developers conference in 1997; It’s also available in book form[2]. The paper expounds on the merits of “bazaar-style” software development in contrast to the top-down, centrally controlled management style used in most corporation.
I happened to be reading Auletta’s book on a recent Friday night, after our Sabbath dinner. It suddenly dawned on me. Raymond could just as well have been describing Judaism as the community of Linux users. (For those who have been asleep, like Honi the Circle-drawer  whom the Talmud says [3] fell asleep and awoke after 70 years, or Washington Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle, who similarly fell asleep for twenty years), Raymond is referring to Linux, the Unix-like free and open source operating system software  originally written in 1991 by Linus Torvalds and now used on about 60% of the world’s computer servers, according to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft[4], who said about the statistic,  “I don't like it. ... We have some work to do."
While a bazaar may not be the first descriptor of Judaism that comes to mind, it is apt. Walk into most any decent-sized Yeshiva, or even into a synagogue, during most parts of the service, and you confront a cacophony of voices. As Raymond says, “No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here.”
In comparison, in most cathedrals, silence is golden.  
In a Yeshiva, you usually study together with a study-buddy, a “havruta.” Kent Beck's “extreme programming” technique for rapid, more bug-free development is similar. He suggests deploying coders in pairs each one looking over the other’s shoulders[5].
The Talmud has been likened to hypertext, as is it full of internal links, as Jonathan Rosen observed[6].
Like the Internet, Judaism is highly decentralized, a property which provides for inherent fault-tolerance. While some countries, such as the United Kingdom have chief rabbis, others, like the United States, do not. There is no supreme ecclesiastical body. No one person or group is “in charge.” Each synagogue has its own customs and rituals, based on a common core. Just as the Internet has some major paths and core routers (the Internet Backbone), so too Judaism has its major strands, often called Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.  But actually, it has many more strands than Howard Johnson’s 28 flavors of ice cream.
There are (self-described) fervently Orthodox, (haredi), Hassidic Orthodox, plain old Orthodox, “Modern Orthodox,” (also self-described), right wing, left wing (no Blue dogs that I’m aware of). There are groups who consider themselves  “Yeshivish,” “Litvish” (based on the study methods popular in pre-War Lithuania), feminist, anti-feminist, and so on. And that’s just among the Orthodox, who comprise perhaps 11% of the total, according to the late professor Daniel J. Elazar who founded the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which keeps track of such things. He also said that at the very least the Orthodox represent 20 percent of the affiliated American Jewish community.
There are similar divisions among the more “liberal,” “progressive,” and reconstructionist strands.
Judaism has its core principles, but even these, other than monotheism, and a belief that God is a “unity unlike any other possible unity” (Maimonides) are much debated.
The Rabbi in Judaism is primarily a teacher, and a decisor. He is by no means an intermediary between man and God. It’s not so well known, but a Rabbi is not needed even to solemnize a Jewish wedding; a thing of value (such as a ring), a marriage contract and the attestation of two valid witnesses suffice.
Reynolds says that “the developer who uses only his or her own brain in a closed project is going to fall behind the developer who knows how to create an open, evolutionary context in which feedback exploring the design space, code contributions, bug-spotting, and other improvements come from hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people.
So it is with Talmudic study, and it has always been so for nearly two millennia. It is a marketplace of competing ideas. Not only is the Talmud itself replete with controversy, but in the standard editions of the Talmud, the text is surrounded by commentaries and super-commentaries, and thousands more glosses have been written over the generations, many flatly contradicting each other. What emerges out of all this seeming chaos, is like the results of a spectroscopic analysis, with bands of different colors whose width represents the degree of consensus.  On some issues, there is a wide band signifying broad agreement, while on others there is a colorful rainbow of narrow bands reflecting an enduring lack of consensus. Of course, the range of opinion is ultimately constrained by the Torah, which functions like a constitution in establishing boundaries.
This healthy tension between authority and opinion is nowhere more evident than on the Internet.  Google uses its famous (and secret) PageRank methodology, named after Larry Page, the co-founder of Google[7], to give great weight to authority and frequency of citation in its rankings. Yet, by attempting to index all of the pages in the Internet, it doesn’t totally disregard minority opinion or comments by individual bloggers; it just pushes their pages further down in the rankings of the search results that it presents.
The bazaar appears to operate on the edge of chaos, as does the Yeshiva. But there is order in chaos, as the famous French polymath Henri Poincar√© (1854 – 1912) first identified. And this near chaos is not a bad thing, as Madhu M. Kurup pointed out: “From elementary chaos theory and evolutionary biology, we know that the most adaptive, dynamic and successful systems operate at the edge of chaos. Too much rigidity and the system dies as it cannot evolve. Too much chaos and the system is destroyed.”[8] Chaos Theory was popularized by James Gleick in his 1987 best seller, Chaos: Making a New Science[9].
Rabbi Abraham Issac HaCohen Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine was notable for building bridges among the various factions in Judaism. He famously called for and envisioned a spiritual renaissance where "the ancient would be renewed and the new would be sanctified."
While a patent examiner in 1871 (the year that Mark Twain was granted his first patent) is reported to have resigned, believing that everything possible had already been invented, the US Patent Office denies this as a myth, and we know that innovation in both technology and Talmudic study are free-wheeling, ongoing, and never-ending processes.
Perhaps it is the inherent elasticity, flexibility, and somewhat controlled chaos of the bazaar that has enabled Judaism to renew itself and remain relevant after thousands of years, and it bodes well for the future of the Internet as well.

[1] ISBN-13: 978-1594202353
[2] ISBN-13: 978-0596001087
[3] BT Taanit 23a
[5] see Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, ISBN-13: 978-0321278654
[6] The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rose (ISBN-13: 978-0826455345). See also
[9] ISBN-13: 978-0747404132

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