“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

So states Linus’s Law. Coined by Eric Raymond in his book “The Cathedral and the Bazaar:”

Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

Or, less formally, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I dub this: “Linus’s Law”.

My original formulation was that every problem “will be transparent to somebody”. Linus demurred that the person who understands and fixes the problem is not necessarily or even usually the person who first characterizes it. “Somebody finds the problem,” he says, “and somebody else understands it. And I’ll go on record as saying that finding it is the bigger challenge.” That correction is important; we’ll see how in the next section, when we examine the practice of debugging in more detail. But the key point is that both parts of the process (finding and fixing) tend to happen rapidly.

I’ve found this law often plays out in the social domain as well. Consider: Meet the Mild-Mannered Investment Adviser Who’s Humiliating the Administration Over Obamacare

Rich Weinstein is not a reporter. He does not have a blog. Until this week, the fortysomething’s five-year old Twitter account had a follower count in the low double digits.

“I’m an investment adviser,” Weinstein tells me from his home near Philadelphia. “I’m a nobody. I’m the guy who lives in his mom’s basement wearing a tinfoil hat.” (He’s joking about the mom and the tinfoil.)

He’s also behind a series of scoops that could convince the Supreme Court to dismantle part of the Affordable Care Act. Weinstein has absorbed hours upon hours of interviews with Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who advised the Massachusetts legislature when it created “Romneycare” and the Congress when it created “Obamacare.” Conservatives had been looking for ways to demonstrate that the wording of the ACA denied insurance subsidies to consumers in states that did not create their own health exchanges. Weinstein found a clip of Gruber suggesting that states that did not create health insurance exchanges risked giving up the ACA’s subsidies; it went straight into the King v. Burwell brief, and into a case that’s currently headed to the Supreme Court.

The benefit of having a transparent playing field, such as is offered by the Internet, is that there are more eyes scanning and shining light on very small yet very important events. Granted, this doesn’t always happen. This is a frequent mis-charaterization of Linus’s Law, even though Raymond clearly states things like “almost every problem” and that the process “tends” to happen quickly. So while the evidence for corruption may exist on the Internet (the “bug” in the system), this does not guarantee that things like Gruber’s statements will be uncovered quickly or that they will be uncovered at all. Rather, the probability they will be uncovered is significantly increased given the prevailing transparency. Perhaps more important is the notion that discoveries like this are possible whereas in a closed system where elites control the entire information stream discoveries like this are impossible. In a closed system, such discoveries and disclosures would require spies and whistle blowers – people willing to sacrifice much in the name of truth, honesty, and fairness.


2014.11.12 – And of course, there is a lot of noise generated by transparent systems that simply adds to the challenge.

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