Recently I tried to leverage Eric Raymond's metaphor of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" to talk about how informal networks and formal hierarchies coexist symbiotically in healthy systems, with infinite variations on the theme. Letting the network flourish gets you Wikipedia; while a stubborn and singular vision gets you the iPhone. Or so I thought.
I first saw the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, when I was about 13—a time when I saw everything through the lens of a camera. I remember slipping out of the hotel at dawn and walking around and around the outside of the church trying to comprehend the impossible geometry of the flying buttresses and towering spires. The next time I saw it, in 1999, I was seeing everything through the lens of knowledge management, and Chartres struck me as an encyclopedic articulation of knowledge more than an artful engineering of stone. So for 10 years now I've been mulling over this idea that, perhaps like a space program, building a gothic cathedral was an ultimate exercise to "know what we know" at a moment in human history 800 years ago. Essentially completed in only 26 years, Chartres is hardly the slow realization of a patient designer that some think characterizes (or criticizes) the cathedral metaphor.
Now I'm reading Phillip Ball's new "biography" of the famous French cathedral, Universe of Stone. I'm also discovering that at the same time I was visiting 10 years ago, David Turnbull was writing brilliantly on exactly this aspect of Chartre's history—as a way to reconsider our assumptions about the evolution of technoscientific knowledge—in Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge. He compares the endeavor to a modern laboratory—a collaborative knowledge space of experimental practice.
"The power of laboratories derives from their being sites at which people, practices and the diverse but amorphous materials can be shaped, manipulated, assembled, and transmitted beyond the laboratory," Turnbull writes. And intriguingly, he suggests, "There are three essential components in the transmission of the mix of knowledge involved in the construction process: talk, tradition and templates."
More to come…