Let me start by saying how much I love Open Source software, peer production, the tide that raises all ships, Wikipedia, all things “open”. It is part of how I define myself. I love what happens when people share expertise, resources, their spare time. It makes me feel like I am part of something larger. It makes me feel powerful and creative, only my effort and imagination can hold me back. Yet, for some time, I have felt a growing unease with the “open” movement.

I think it started back in 2006 when the South African government established a policy directing the use of Open Source software within government departments “unless proprietary software is demonstrated to be significantly superior”.

This policy did not achieve its aim of converting government departments to the use of Open Source. If anything it probably alienated civil servants more than it made them converts to Open Source. It made them feel like FOSS was some kind of second class solution they were obliged to use because they couldn’t afford the best. I knew I didn’t like this policy at the time but I couldn’t really put my finger on why except for the basic awareness that nobody likes to be forced to do something, even if its good for them.

Fast forward a year to 2007 and we have Tony Blair saying:

“Open v closed” is as important today in politics as “left v right”. Nations do best when they are prepared to be open to the world. This means open in their economies, eschewing protectionism, welcoming foreign investment, running flexible labour markets. It means also open to the benefit of controlled immigration.

Once again, I respond positively to openness and indeed open vs closed does seem a more practical unit of political analysis than left vs right these days, at least on some levels. However, again I experience a trace of unease and this time I can’t put my finger on it. And in the ensuing 5-6 years we see openness emerging as a western agenda with the implicit assumption that open = good and by extension more open = more good.

I expressed some of my concerns when I wrote about this in 2009. I likened open vs. closed as a kind of yin and yang, two parts that can’t live without each other.  That was close to what I want to say here but I think the problem is bigger now and that analogy misses some critical nuance

More recently I’ve been thinking about “open” in the context of Open Data and how that relates to personal privacy. Clearly more open cannot always equate to more good in this context. If we acknowledge that the need for privacy is contextual, then it is axiomatic that the need for openness is also contextual. The problem with making a virtue of “open” is that it tends to steamroller nuance and context.

I am reminded, as I often am, of the Taoist parable of a farmer and his “good” fortune.  Nothing is inherently good or bad but is defined by the context in which we understand.  The more I think about it, the more I think the crux of the problem lies in an essentially manichean worldview where open is now equated with virtue, where we must fight the forces of closed-ness wherever we find it.

This is wrong in the same way that the Golden Rule is wrong. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What could be simpler? Yet, the angry drunk who enjoys getting into fights in bars has no problem with this rule. It helps him get into more fights. Absolute rules tend not to fair very well in complex environments.

So, let’s consider some other “good” words.  How about “kindness” and “cleanliness”? Any parent or anyone who has been in the wrong relationship knows that you have to be “cruel to be kind” sometimes.  Doing the right thing might actually involve not being “kind”.  So perhaps kindness is not a very good goal.  And cleanliness.  We know it is next to godliness and on the surface of things how could one argue with it.  But a quest for cleanliness actually has led to some surprisingly negative outcomes such as the growth of allergies.  The more we understand about our bodies, the more we realise that what we previously thought of as “unclean” is actually a part of what makes us human.

So, would a “kindness” movement serve us well?  Or a “cleanliness” movement? Well, the answer is not yes or no, it is “mostly”.  Mostly being kind is a good idea and mostly being clean is a good idea but they are bad when turned into doctrine and orthodoxy. The rationale for orthodoxy is that if you don’t keep things pure enough, then it is a slippery slope to the increasing adulteration of all you hold dear.

The problem with purity is that is that it leads to fragility.  In Anti-Fragility, Nassim Taleb argues that all complex systems need to be stressed in order to grow stronger, to reduce fragility. Perhaps open works need proprietary works to stress them into improving and evolving.  As I wrote previously, the evidence from multi-party prisoner’s dilemma simulations would seem to support this, namely that “open” strategies succeed very well in a very closed ecologies and “closed” strategies succeed very well in a very open environments.

So what’s an Open Source advocate to do?  Well, if you were Evgeny Morozov you could rubbish the entire open movement but that doesn’t work for me because I really do see and live the benefits of open all around me.   I think what is needed is a new concept, that of “Right Openness”.  In Buddhist philosophy, one of the principal teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes the “path” to enlightenment.  Each path begins with the word “right”, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, etc.  What is notable about this is that there is no prescribed behaviour.  There is the overall goal of reducing suffering and being compassionate but the way you achieve that is not specified.  Mostly kindness is a great way of being compassionate but not always.  Mostly openness is a great way of achieving good outcomes in the growth of knowledge  in good governance, etc but not always. One need only look at a for-profit 3-D gun printing initiative to see how “open” as orthodoxy can lead to the wrong sort of outcome.

Let’s take the example of Right Speech. In the west, we value truth and freedom when it comes to speech. Yet, anyone who has uttered the words “Let’s be honest” in a relationship, knows that there are truths and there are truths. Time and geography matter when it comes to truth. Learning the truth about a murder that happened hundreds of years ago, half-way around the world is not the same as learning the truth about a murder that happened an hour ago, next door. The same with freedom of speech. Encouraging someone to help their neighbour is not the same as encouraging someone to kill their neighbour. We know this, yet we still defend freedom of speech when I think what we really mean is Right Speech, speech that does not harm others, that is timely, etc.

What then would Right Openness look like? It would recognise that “openness” is not an inherent virtue but rather a contextual good. What would that look like in practice? Well it would always hark back to the question of the larger goal, whether more equitable sharing of knowledge, good governance, etc.  It would then ask what right openness looks like in that context. It would lead by example, not by doctrine. In the Open Data world, it would embrace privacy issues as being fundamental to effectiveness openness without getting hung up on privacy as a violation of openness.

As we struggle to understand the complexity of the world we live, we look for simple rules to help guide us through the storm.  That’s great as look as we treat them as rules of thumb.  To paraphrase George Box, all rules are flawed, but some are useful.

So let’s hear it for Right Openness and remember kids, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes

Photo courtesy Stephanie Davidson 2008 CC BY SA


Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data