The Future of Open and How To Stop It

In 2008, Jonathan Zittrain wrote a book called The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It. In it he argued that the runaway success of the Internet is also the cause of it being undermined, that vested interests were in the process of locking down the potential for innovation by creating walled gardens.  He wrote that book because he loved the Internet and the potential it represents and was concerned about it going down a path that would diminish its potential.  It is in that spirit that I borrow his title to talk about the open movement.  By the term open movement, I am referring broadly to the group of initiatives inspired by the success of Open Source software that led to initiatives as varied as the Creative Commons, Open Data, Open Science, Open Access, Open Corporates, Open Government, the list goes on.   I write this because I love open initiatives but I fear that openness is in danger of becoming its own enemy as it becomes an orthodoxy difficult to question.

In June of last year, I wrote an article called The Morality of Openness which attempted to unpack my complicated feelings about openness.  Towards the end the essay, I wondered whether the word trust might not be a more important word than open for our current world.  I am now convinced of this.  Which is not to say that I have stopped believing in openness but openness; I believe openness is a means to an end, it is not the endgame.  Trust is the endgame.  Higher trust environments, whether in families or corporations or economies, tend to be both more effective and happier.  There is no similar body of evidence for open and yet open practices can be a critical element on the road to trust. Equally, when mis-applied, openness can achieve the opposite.

The Roots of Open

It is interesting to note that the free software movement (arguably the inspiration for much of the broader open movement) never discusses trust as part of it ethos.  Richard Stallman argues for what he defines as four freedoms of code; a highly individualist perspective.  The word trust does not appear in his writing except in a negative manner when he refers to proprietary software.  Another seminal text on free software, The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond does not use the word trust at all.  This is a foundational document for the free software movement that challenged and ultimately defeated the orthodoxy of top-down approaches to software development and has re-shaped thinking across a variety of fields.  And yet no mention of trust.  Perhaps that has something to do with the anarcho-libertarian nature of his politics.  Perhaps Raymond and Stallman are classic geeks who instinctively steer away from touchy-feely expressions.  Trust is definitely a touchy-feely issue, just ask neuroscientist Paul Zak.

My experience of Open Source hardware and software in the development of Village Telco has been heavily rooted in trust.  Using an Open Hardware design was a short-cut to building a trust relationship with a manufacturer in Shenzhen we had never met before; a relationship that remains strong to this day.  Using Open Source software created a trust environment where complete strangers felt comfortable to share their expertise.  Of course the transparency aspect of open was also critical in enabling serendipitous experiences but even those would not have happened were it not for the bond of trust created by our Open Source practice.  I say practice, for example the public ongoing dialogue of development and not just the open license we use, because the secret to Open Source lies in its practice.

With the arrival of academics like Yochai Benkler, trust finally finds its way into the open source and peer production narrative.  For Benkler it is more about the unacknowledged economic value of social trust and reciprocity.   Slightly further afield Helen Nissenbaum writes about securing trust online.  Most interestingly for me she distinguishes between the concept of securing trust versus nourishing trust.  But I digress.

The Problem

This issue has been percolating with me for some time and I was inspired to write this post when I saw last week that over seventy members of the UK Open Government Network had sent a letter insisting that all political parties must commit to open government.  The call is based on the seemingly benign notion that governments work better when they are more transparent, engaging and accountable.  That sounds completely plausible… and yet.  As pointed out above, the link between transparency and good government is inconsistent at best.  If your faith in transparency isn’t shaken already, listen to Ivan Krastev argue that transparency is actually the “management of mistrust”.

Further, the word “engaging” feels wrong too.  It sounds like something you do to someone else, like Captain Picard ordering the Enterprise into action.   If I were to try to think of a more sympathetic word than “engaging”, it would be listening.  Even uber-geek XCKD author Randall Munroe gets this.  Listening, is a very different kind of “openness”. It implies all the best things about open: inclusiveness, receptiveness, suspension of judgement without the sensation of be done unto.

That leaves us with accountability which is necessary and desirable.  But it is no longer clear to me what Open Government, as currently framed, has to do with it.

The problem gets worse when we look at the clash between Open Government Data advocates who push for an “open by default” setting for government data and privacy advocates who are legitimately concerned whether individual privacy may be compromised by such strategies.  While dialogues have been set up to try to resolve the tension between openness and privacy, to date they haven’t made much progress.  I don’t think this is because of a lack of good will but rather because the overall framing is not constructive for reconciling these issues.

Can We Talk About Trust and Openness?

Earlier this month Jay Rosen wrote a wonderfully insightful article on trust in journalism in which he proposes that trust in newspapers is like a bank in which the newspaper’s store of public trust can be built up or drawn down against.  Meticulously researched, argued, and referenced news articles build public trust in the newspaper.  Articles that force the reader to rely on the authority of the newspaper draw down on the paper’s reserve of public trust.  He doesn’t propose that newspapers should only write the first kind of article but rather that they should be cautious about drawing down to often on that reserve of trust.  I love this idea.  First, it clearly gets across the idea that trust is something to be nurtured not a fortress to be secured.  Second, it acknowledge that context shapes our actions and there may be times when it is important to publish even though it is impossible to provide as much corroboration as you normally would .

Let’s apply this idea to the open movement.  Openness can be a means of building trust.  Ironically though, if openness as behaviour is mandated, it stops building trust.  Listen to Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith talk about why that happens.  What Smith argues (building on the work of an earlier Smith, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) is that intent matters.  That as human beings, we signal our intentions to each other with our behaviour and that influences how others behave.  When intention is removed by regulating or enforcing good behaviour, that signal is lost as well.

I watched this happen nearly ten years ago in South Africa when the government decided to embrace the success of Open Source software and make it mandatory for government departments to use Open Source software.  No one did.  It is choosing to share that make open initiatives work.  When you remove choice, you don’t inspire others to share and you don’t build trust.  Looking at the problem from the perspective of trust rather than from the perspective of open makes this problem much easier to see.

Lateral thinker Jerry Michalski gave a great talk last year entitled What If We Trusted You? in which he talked about how the architecture of systems either build or destroy trust.  He give a great example of wikipedia as an open, trust enabling architecture.  We don’t often think about what a giant leap of trust wikipedia makes in allowing anyone to edit it and what an enormous achievement it became.

I want to suggest that some open initiatives, as currently conceived, may actually work to undermine trust rather than build it.  I don’t want to get rid of open initiatives but I do want to re-examine them.   I want to suggest that when we design open initiatives, we measure their success by the extent to which they nurture reciprocity and trust.

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