The cathedral, the bazaar and a virus

It’s ‘ interesting to watch centralised, structured power struggling to cope with decentralised, unstructured challenges. We have been brought up to expect “the state” to protect us from threats. We expect them to protect us against coronavirus.

But what if decentralised problems are too much for them? What if centralised solutions can’t cope? What if they collapse under the strain?

We are beginning to see alternatives. As more of us get better at using the distributed, decentralised, networks of the internet, we increase the likelihood that the information we get through these networks becomes faster and more reliable than the alternatives. We are also being thrust into using online networks to do our work, our shopping, our learning, and to maintain our sense of community.

Although there is noise in the system (there is in any system) this is not about “fake news” nor is it an argument against expertise. The experts are also benefiting from increasing use of online networks to share and work together without going through centralised authorities, cutting out middle men in efforts to speed things up. We are also able to watch them doing so and benefit more directly from their learning.

The provision of resources to help us deal with the effects of this virus are currently centralised – hospitals, food, financial support – and as such they risk becoming single points of failure. But what if they weren’t?

What if out of all of this we learned to rely less on the centre and the “top”? What if we learned to help each other, to do so more locally, and through flexible, complex adaptive systems rather than hierarchical, centralised brittle ones?

5 thoughts on “The cathedral, the bazaar and a virus

  1. At it’s very simplest, we have already found the local (street) What’sApp group sharing information on product availability, from the location of toilet roll supplies to when the over-stretched local small Co-op has got its latest delivery onto the shelves.


  2. A case in point about centralised vs. decentralised working and decision making is the Government’s failure to achieve its target of 25,000 tests per day for Covid-19. Accepting there might be a problem with the sourcing of reagent chemicals for the DNA testing, but according to a former director of the World Health Organisation we are not making the most of the opportunities currently available to us. Public Health England (PHE) want to control who can do the tests, and until quite recently only allowed PHE labs to do the testing. Apparently there are 44 molecular virology labs in the UK, none of them working at capacity and few who have been approved for Covid-19 testing. If they were each doing 400 tests a day we would be at the same level of testing as Germany. Centralised control does ensure quality and standards, but surely these can be relaxed in the interests of rapidly ramping up testing. Quality could thereafter measured and controlled by PHE using statistical sampling techniques. There would also be an opportunity for this network of labs to share best practice. Networks may not deliver a gold standard from day one, but knowledge sharing between them would get them there quickly, and (I would argue) quicker than communication being controlled and managed through a centralised authority. In the mean time, we’ve got thousands of NHS workers not able to work because they haven’t been tested. Time I think for Government to start decentralising their decision making processes in the interest of speeding up critical interventions.

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