I feel like my moral compass is broken.  Like many things that break, I put the first aberrations down to anomalies, exceptions that prove the rule.  But just as a real compass doesn’t point to true north but to a magnetic approximation of that, a proxy if you will, I am increasingly aware that my moral compass is an increasingly inadequate proxy in guiding my actions. The time has come to look at the compass itself and see whether it is still the useful guide it once was. I am referring to what might be broadly termed the “open movement”.  For the large part of my adult life I’ve been a proponent of all things “open”.  From Open Source software to Open Hardware to Open Content to Open Access to research to Open Educational Materials, the list goes on.  I’ve been a user, a funder, a creator, a propagator of open things and still am.  But as time has gone on, I find open is taking us down some paths that are not necessarily desirable.  This has caused me to question the inherent “virtue” of openness.  This is not brand new for me.  Previously I’ve touched on the symbiotic relationship between open and closed initiatives.  I’ve critiqued the Open Data movement on the very issue of setting “open” as a goal.  And I’ve explored “openness” through a Buddhist lens.  Until now I haven’t really put my finger on how the issue might be addressed is until some recent reading gave me some new insights.

On The Naming of Things

Through the Language Glass

Guy Deutscher is the author of a book entitled Through the Language Glass — How Words Colour Your World which explores how language affects the way we see the world.  I found his work through references to it by Nassim Taleb and others.  The central thesis of the book is that we are more defined by our language than we perhaps imagine.  I cannot recommend this book enough for both its insight as well as the engaging style in which it is written.  It has made me think about the word “open” and how we use it to mean such a variety of things.  It made me wonder whether we need to be more precise in what we mean when use the term open.  Perhaps we even need new words.  Free is a word that has similar troubles.  In French there are two words for free; “libre” meaning unfettered and “gratis” meaning free to have or use.  Or as they say in the Open Source movement, free as in speech and free as in beer.  This simple confusion has led to no end of counter-productive debates in which participants use the the word free while meaning different things.   I believe the word “open” has similar problems.

The Righteousness of Openness

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind

This idea of a single word or concept hiding important nuances is exactly what is explored in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in which he examines the dimensions of morality and finds that, just like our sense of taste can be broken down into salt, sweet, umami, etc, our morality can be broken down into different senses of right and wrong.  We often talk about right and wrong as if they were self-evident but Haidt’s research reveals that not only are big differences but that those differences reveal distinct sub-themes that underpin moral values.  Research across many cultures led him to the following broad categories of moral behaviour:

Care / HarmCare for others, protecting them from harm.
Fairness / CheatingA sense of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions
Liberty / OppressionCharacterises judgements in terms of whether people are subject to tyranny or not.
Loyalty / BetrayalLoyalty to group, family, nation.
Authority / SubversionRespect or lack thereof for traditional and legitimate authority.
Sanctity / DegradationA sense of purity, of avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions, etc.

Haidt then uses those categories to unpack the differences between liberals and conservatives.  This in itself is fascinating but what I want to focus on here is the need to unpack the nuances of morality in order to have a more constructive conversation.  I think it may be possible to apply the same approach to what we mean by openness.

So what does the morality of openness look like?  It is easy to see some of Haidt’s categories informing some of the motivations around openness but I am going to try to lay out some categories based on my experience.

InclusivenessFor me inclusiveness is the most basic sense of open. It signifies an open door, an open hearth, a sense that everyone is entitled to a place by the fire. It is non-discrimination and low barriers to entry.
TransparencyThis might be seen as an open window as opposed to an open door. The ability to see the inner workings of how things are made whether software, hardware or orgware is another fundamental sense of openness which is critical both from the point of view of ensuring fairness but also from the point of view of shared knowledge becoming a tide which raises all ships.
Agreed RulesOpenness also depends on structure, whether through Internet RFCs or open APIs or open document formats. One of the keys to enabling innovation and cooperation is having well-established structures for sharing and communicating. Slightly paradoxically these structures are continuously evolving.
Remixability & ReciprocityThe acknowledgement that all knowledge builds on the past and that in order to innovate as quickly as possible, we need the freedom to adapt all kinds of resources. Reciprocity is as a mechanism for building trust, ensuring remixability,

I am far from confident at this point that these are the correct categories but it felt important to start somewhere.  I think that by breaking down the umbrella term open into its key elements and unpacking the motivations behind them, we will have more success in getting consensus in areas where there is a distinct tension such as in the dialogue between privacy and open government advocates.

Is Trust the new Open

It's Complicated

It’s Complicated

The third book I want to mention in terms of re-thinking open is Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated.  This insightful book explores how social media is changing the lives of teens from the point of view of identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying.  As a parent of three young boys, I found the book of great practical use on a personal level.  The profound insight for me from the book was Boyd’s assertion that problems around social media between parents and teens mostly related to issues of trust and respect.  Teens want to be trusted and respected by their parents and as, in equal measure, do parents want to be trusted and respected by their children.  Technology and social media is just another realm in which this complex relationship gets played out.  

I believe the same rules apply personally as professionally and it made me wonder whether open is simply the wrong framing for some aspects of the open movement.  In particular here I am thinking of the Open Government Data movement.  It seems to me that what we are trying to achieve with government is a better trust relationship.  Openness might be one means of achieving that but it may not be the most efficient or effective means of doing so.  Thinking back to my kids, I could filter every link going out of the home network and make them aware that we have complete openness and transparency with regard to our network.  But would that build their trust?  No, probably just the opposite.

I have worked for a Canadian state-owned research funding agency and have been the subject of a Access to Information request from a disgruntled government contractor.  I and my colleagues had nothing to hide but nevertheless it made me second guess myself and ultimately had an impact on how I communicated in the future, wondering how my communications might be interpreted or misinterpreted.

Of course I still believe in Access to Information policies but the simple dictum “sunlight is the best disinfectant” doesn’t sound as virtuous as it used to.  Ultimately we don’t want government to be squeaky clean, disinfected environments.  We want them to be healthy, trusted ecosystems of innovation in governance.

And that brings me back to the unpacking of “openness” because some of the goals of opening are about learning in which “seeing inside” is critical to creating new knowledge and other aspects of openness are about creating trust relationships which may or may not require radical transparency to achieve it or indeed where radical transparency might even undermine trust.

Looking back at the listed elements of openness above, I could frame each of those items just as easily in the context of trust as I can in the context of openness.  I think that may be part of the story but there is more to it than that.

I end this article as I began it, without the right words but with a strong sense that new words are needed to re-frame aspects of the Open Movement.


Compass image courtesy Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0

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Posted by Steve Song

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

  • Guest

    This has caused me to question the inherent “virtue” of openness.

    OK, same with the Twin Horses article, everything is not set and done by labelling stuff open. This is true for coding FOSS, though. Once things are set to GPL for instance, there are other social and organisational mechanisms that have to be implemented and followed for the project to succeed. There are only little deviations one can make from these blueprint paths. These paths, again, are of course still being proven and refined, but there are key elements which cannot be compromised.

    Now this is FOSS. And I think it is working because of the licensing, GPL in particular. You don’t have to explain things like inclusiveness and transparency to developers. It won’t work without. Your ass will be forked. Why I say GPL being key here is, that even with commercial projects, once you stray from GPL things can go haywire. Which is also why “community manager” is a the-internet-is-serious-business job title.

    IMHO GPL-like authority is missing in areas such as “Open Government”, where it is impossible to repeatedly try and explain to people that there are more necessities to the label open. To be less philosophic: How are we gonna get things done? Of course I do not know how, but I think our best shot is implementing aspects of liquid democracy and making Open Government one of the necessities rather than a vague goal.

    BTW, I had to allow 1 million scripts to post this comment.

  • scktt

    Thanks. This reminded me a lot of L. Lessig’s “Against Transparency” – much of the same questions you note at the end:
    http://www.law.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/WeekOne-Lessig.pdf

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  • stevesong

    Nice! I wasn’t aware that Lessig had written this. Thanks so much for sharing. I see there is a follow-up article where he responds to some critique of the first one. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/tnr-debate-too-much-transparency-part-vi

  • stevesong

    I think your point about making Open Government a less vague goal relates directly to the need to break the term “open” down into its various flavours and consider how each plays out in governance.

    Sorry about the excess javascript, it is a “feature” of the Disqus tool apparently.

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