The Washington Post

Cathedrals vs. bazaars, and why we don’t need smoking chimneys anymore

The chimney is setup on the roof of the Sistine chapel ahead of the cardinals conclave on March 9, 2013 at the Vatican. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Update: White smoke has emerged from the Sistine Chapel. Follow live coverage of the papal conclave and news on who the new pope will be on WorldViews.

With the Sistine Chapel in full lock-down mode for the conclave of cardinals to select the next Pope, it’s astonishing to consider just how anachronistic the whole papal decision-making process is. Today, when concepts such as sharing, openness and connectivity make up our new holy text — the sole way that the Vatican cardinals will communicate with the outside world will be via a smoking chimney. While vast numbers of us relentlessly consult our mobile devices countless times per hour, the Vatican will be shut off from the external world — no TV, no radio and heaven forbid, no Twitter. Instead of putting their faith in Big Data, they will put their faith in the Holy Spirit.

What the Vatican cardinals need is a crash course on how technology has forever altered the way that organizations and institutions make decisions and how ideas, information and thoughts are transmitted around the world. Most importantly, the open-source mentality has become part of the innovation zeitgeist. What started with the software industry — the belief that code created by individuals distributed all over the world can be superior to the code created by a few geniuses at the top of a single corporation — has diffused into nearly every aspect of our lives. We now trust the crowd as much as we do experts and we accept that many products can be released in “beta” and still be successful.

Around the time of the beginning of the first Internet boom, the influential essay (and later, book) "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" perfectly captured the essence of how the process of decision-making was changing. The author, Eric S. Raymond, argued that there were two fundamental ways of developing software — you had the old way (”the cathedral”) and you had the new way (”the bazaar”). The bazaar was all about finding new ways of cooperation, in which the public would play a role in testing, experimenting and fixing bugs. Some of the principles outlined in the essay — “treat your users as co-developers” or “release early, release often” — not only apply to the world of coding, but also to any institution attempting to bring a sophisticated product to market.

These principles apply, as well, to a Catholic church attempting to innovate for the realities of the 21st century.

Nuns from the 'Instituto Serve del Signore, E Della Vergine Di Matara,' (Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara,) react to the black smoke seen from the chimney in St Peter's Square on March 12, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Dan Kitwood/GETTY IMAGES)

But wasn’t it this "traditional" decision-making process that got the Church into a mess in the first place? The veil of secrecy over the inner proceedings of the Church is what led to charges of scandal and abuse at the very highest echelons. The closed mindedness of the influencers at the top led to a situation in which the church no longer represents the diversity of its flock. By way of comparison — would the head executives of any publicly traded company sequester themselves away in an art-filled mansion in, say, the Hamptons, and communicate with the outside world only via smoke-signals every time they wanted to select a new CEO?

Cardinals attend a mass at the St Peter's basilica before the start of the conclave on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Instead of adopting the “Cathedral” approach to decision-making — in which the code is jealously protected by insiders — what if the Church instead took on the ways of the bazaar? They would realize that technology is an extraordinarily powerful tool for reaching potential new members, and that opening up the decision-making process to their flock all over the world is a sign of strength, not weakness. They would be more inclusive and see how their message needs to change in response to growth in places such as Latin America and Asia. And, most importantly, they would realize that sending smoke signals is a technological artifact now that religion is no longer just an institution — it is also a form of code for telling us how to live our lives to the fullest.

View Photo Gallery: Sacred politicking to elect the next pope moves into the final phase, as 115 cardinals locked themselves into the Sistine Chapel.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

Full coverage: Electing a new pope

A talking shoe in Google’s ‘Playground’

SXSW 2013 in Leaps and Beams

Tim Berners-Lee on the making of new worlds

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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