Governing Openness

Openness is a philosophy that is being used as the basis of how various groups and organizations operate. It is a relatively new term to describe a general way of doing things. — “Openness.” Wikipedia. Accessed 01.06.09.

Over the span of four hours, Dr. Christine Kolbe led us, the participants of last week’s Thinking Openeverything salon, along the many strands of “openness” collected over the past months. Together, we were trying to advance answers to core questions. Where does the term openness come from? What does it really mean? Is it unique to the digital age? What are the shortcomings and counter arguments to opening up everything? Are these processes viable models for society?

We first took a stab at these topics using a mediation technique called a spectogram, where we lined up according to our personal responses to the question How open are you? The majority of the room clustered around “above average” and “completely”, but a few outliers sparked comment when standing firmly at “not very”. One participant, finding himself hovering near “not at all”, explained that he sensed a generational gap between his traditional “keep your cards close” behavior and the more share-happy, digital native approach.

From these initial thoughts, we pieced together some conditions of openness. Most definitions included transparency, participation, and access. Feedback loops were also key, as they ensure communication channels between users and service providers — be they software companies, fashion labels, or governments.

Of course, no conversation about openness would be complete without recognition of the free vs. open debate. There is a critical distinction between the two terms, although they are often (wrongly) used interchangeably. Free describes an ideology and social movement bound by four unwavering freedoms guaranteeing access, distribution, modification, and even commercialization. Open is more about methodology, and as a term, it is by far less disciplined in usage. An open platform, for example, may grant gratis access to everyone but run proprietorially and prevent users from governing themselves. In such instances, you end up with cases like Facebook’s controversial Terms of Service, which allow the social networking company to data-mine its users’ personal information and sell it to marketers.

The ambiguities of the term “openness”, or its general lack of ideology, prompted one of the most intriguing questions at openeverything Berlin: Is openness a model for society? Certainly there are characteristics of openness that are and should be the aspirations of governments and communities, no-brainers such as transparency and participation. But how can these traits be implemented or maintained if there is not a rigid definition of openness or mechanisms to guarantee them? Unlike “free as in speech”, there are not systematized hacks and uncompromising rules to ensure something is open, and that it will stay that way. This fundamental shortcoming leads to deeper questions regarding the role of commons governance in general — a thoroughly under-theorized field, as commons researcher David Bollier rightly points out.

Overall, commons governance was a huge topic on the participants’ minds at openeverything Berlin. We took a look at how open projects are structured and how democracy plays out within them. It became clear that while many existing projects take steps in the right direction, a notable number are still reigned by benevolent dictators. Take for instance Wikipedia, which evokes a remarkable exception for its founder, Jimmy Wales. The rule, WP:JIMBO, stipulates that Wales may assert authority “on an ad-hoc basis: it is exercised when other decision-making structures are inadequate or have failed in a particular situation.”

Openwashing also poses a threat to the idyllic fields of openness. Openwashing, derived from greenwashing, is a marketing phenomenon that seeks to pitch a product as open, although it is not. Since “openness” doesn’t have a strict definition or ideology, the term can be abused all the easier. Coca-Cola, for example, recently launched its “Open Happiness” campaign, which is supposed to “inspire people to say yes to the opportunities that summer brings” through ad spots and posters. I’m not hold my breath that Coke’s campaign will do anything truly open at all. It is, just like many other companies, simply riding a wave of cool. Open is vogue, and since commodification inevitably follows cool, we’ll be seeing more and more openwashing down the line, which will unvariably dilute “open” as a meaningful nomenclature.

But who controls that “right” definition of open in the first place? This was a closing point at the salon. While I personally think there’s good reason to protest against openwashing, what sort of legitimacy does our little Berlin gathering have in dictating a functioning definition of openness for the world? The lack of governing competence for the term might be another thread in openness’ undoing. While the Free Software Definition is curated by the Free Software Foundation, there is no responsible body for “openness”. Would an institutional caretaker improve or advance the concept? Or would it be best to leave the term as is — a loose description of methodology and characteristics? Time will help answer this “open question”…but rest assured we’ll continue tackling it at next month’s openeverything! (^_^)

So, is opennes a model for society? What do you think?

3 comments

  1. Pingback: thornet's status on Monday, 01-Jun-09 22:05:55 UTC - Identi.ca
    • Jonathan Gray · June 1, 2009

      For open knowledge there’s the Open Knowledge Definition:

      “The Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) sets out principles to define the ‘open’ in open knowledge. The term knowledge is used broadly and it includes all forms of data, content such as music, films or books as well any other type of information.”

      See: http://opendefinition.org/

  2. David Pidsley · June 1, 2009

    Another excellent post. I make me think that if a public organisation doesn’t have a feedback loop for young people, what are their saying about its aspirations and role as a caretaker of the future?