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Myths & Virtues of the Open

It is almost trite to say that one embraces the open these days. It has become I kind of de rigueur position of the Interneterati. There’s lots of important reason we should embrace the open in any number of contexts, but it is high time (as with Design Thinking, innovation and a few other choice buzz terms) that we start to demand clarity, precision and empiricism of each other rather than continue to recklessly bandy about these terms as if there mere incantion were sufficient to make them either real or important.

This comes up because Dave Gray and I have been having a conversation about openess or the “open” as a value. We were disagreeing yesterday about whether there’s a sense in which we could say that Apple is open. Or whether Google is. Though we both seemed to agree (at least provisionally) that Microsoft is not. Then Dave added this recent post from Luke W into the mix.

So what is openness and why are we inclined to see it as a virtue?

Let’s start with the “easy case” of open source software. The reason open source is often help up as a superior method of software deveopment harkens to what Eric S. Raymond called, Linus’ law: “given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” For anyone who wants to develop some fluency in the language and recent history of the open, you could do worse that starting with Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Linus’ law really means that bug fixing, and therefore rapid and robust code development, goes better when there are may hands (or “eyes”) at work. And, in fact, there’s a useful distinction to make right here. Because it is useful (even valuable) for people to “look” for bugs and report them, even if those same people can neither fix those bugs or even code at all. So this is the first sense in which open source is open, it is open to suggestions about revisions to (in theory) anyone you uses the code.

Of course, the second crucial sense (some might argue the primary sense) in which open source is “open” concerns the norms and legal agreements around the codebase itself. Open source software is open in the sense that the source code is not the legal property of any one person or company, but the “shared” property (if that’s still the right word) of its contributors in the first instance and its users in the second. The GNU license is perhaps the paradignmatic such agreement. Here, there are philopsophical, legal, epistemological and social views very much in play around why this arrangement is virtuous. Consider the following proposition of the Free Software Foundation (guardian of the GNU license):

Free software is a matter of freedom: people should be free to use software in all the ways that are socially useful. Software differs from material objects—such as chairs, sandwiches, and gasoline—in that it can be copied and changed much more easily. These possibilities make software as useful as it is; we believe software users should be able to make use of them.

We can debate elements of these claims, but what is beyond debate is that there are a set of social agreements about keeping certain kinds of software open as a means to providing both access and superior code as a social good.

That at least gives us a place to start. From here, we might consider the meaning of the open as it is conditioned or modified by phrases like: the open society or the more recent Open web.

Luke W’s post makes the argument that Apple’s superior designs depend in some way on being (or is at least not at odds with) maintaining tight control over its product devleopment & design. Luke says: “Apple makes their entire living by tightly controlling the experience of their customers. It’s why everyone praises their designs. From top to bottom, hardware to software -you get an integrated experience. Without this control, Apple could not be what it is today.” I might be prepared to argue the last point, the one that argues that this control is necessary to Apple’s success (although it may be). It is certainly true enough that this is how Apple has played the game.

What is interesting, both in Apple’s case and others, is that this controlled strategy is not at odds with a platform approach. From the deals Apple has had to make with music & entertainment publishers to their deals with mobile carriers around the world and the creation of the App Store as an integrated platform of Apple’s design. I think Luke’s post asked the right question (at least implicitly): would these thing be better and would we be better off as customers if these thing were more open?

I think there are elements of openness even within this tightly controlled and managed architecture. From our ability to create and share iMixes to our ability to configure our iPhones to how much of “ourselves” we pour into the lifestyle enclosures that Apple has so skillfully designed. These are all, as is fundamental to the architecture of platforms, open in some ways. I think we are overstepping when we try to start dividing the world into the open vs. the closed. I think (to borrow a lesson from democratic theory) we are better off to tak about things being MORE or LESS open. Then to point to the feauture about the thing that we believe are better or worse for being open and then to (and here’s the too often lacking bit) make the argument for that point of view, instead of acting as if the mere force ofthe rhetoric of our position were sufficient evidence for its truth.

This stuff matters more and more each day, because we need to understand how these ideas and forces are changing the way we work, the stuff we buy and even the air we breathe. No where is this more evident than in the arena that we now call the web. You may have heard the phrase the “open web”: Mozilla Foundation, OpenID Foundation and Creative Commons are all advocates. What is the open web? The truth is we don’t know exactly and that for now it is more norm that description. Open web advocates hope to make it both. As the web races past the mobile platform on its way to ubiquitous and situated environments, the web will soon surround us. There are complicated issues here. Categories like open and closed need to become more sophisticated in their articulation in order to ensure that we have rich conversations about the issues rather than silly turf wars over language.

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