Fostering Open-ness

I am almost done with Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It”. The main contention of the book has been hotly debated pretty much since it was published. One of the more constructive responses has been to suggest that Zittrain doesn’t given open-ness enough credit. Adam Thierer said as much in his rebuttal at the New America Foundation event I attended where Zittrain spoke. Thierer’s sentiment ran to the effect that the “open” genie is out of the bottle, no threat of closed networks or tethered devices would be able to kill it now. I remain to be convinced of that point but I’ll get to that shortly.

More recently, Mike Masnick over at Techdirt suggested that Zittrain was underestimating the benefit of open systems and overestimating the risk of closed systems. Timothy B. Lee expanded on this idea on Freedom to Tinker, pointing out he has been making that very point for some time as part of a larger trend.

From my reading of the book, and with the benefit of Zittrain’s remarks at the New America event, I believe very much that Thierer, Masnick and Lee are missing the point. Zittrain speaks glowingly in all cases about the benefits of open systems, from TCP/IP to Wikipedia. I don’t see his discussion of closed systems as a direct threat to open systems. He concedes in the book that we have had closed systems from the beginning. In fact, he makes the point that open systems triumph over closed ones by their very nature of being open. Others have made very similar and I believe accurate points about walled gardens.

I felt the point of the book was to try to understand the best means to foster that very valuable quality of open-ness. His choice of Wikipedia is very informative as that project went through a couple of large changes in direction early on before it found a model that worked, its familiar totally open model where as the early iterations were less open. It could be argued that the final model was almost entirely accidental, with the necessary precedents set by chance as editor and bounty driven variations were explored and discarded. News that Google’s Knol project hasn’t followed the same trajectory as Wikipedia is then hardly surprising, highlighting the difficulty in finding and building on the right principles to drive open-ness.

In Zittrain’s remarks at the New America talk, he focused on civic mindedness, framing open-ness much more in terms of a network ethos. In trying to understand Wikipedia’s success in the book, he looks closely at its underlying network ethos too. I don’t think it is an accident that Lee includes Lessig’s “Code” in his criticism of seeming network Cassandras. Lessig offers what I find to be a very compelling model, based on four dimensions–law, architecture, markets and norms. The first three are very well understood by scholars of all stripes. The translation of them into a network society can at times be difficult to understand but I don’t think they present anywhere near the challenge that understanding how network norms, or ethos, differ from traditional norms and ethos.

I see network freedom and open-ness as deriving wholly from the core norms or ethos of communities. Nowhere is that correlation more evident than when we examine open source and free software projects. It is much easier to gauge the degree of open-ness or freedom when it comes to software. The effect of public licenses has been studied by legal scholars and advocates, like the Free Software Foundation, intensively since their inception. We’ve had some key case law crafted and critical tests that allow us to understand the effect of the open network ethos on software pretty well even though there are still questions and ambiguities yet to explore.

Wikipedia in many ways represents the most notable, if not necessarily the first, attempt to translate that ethos to a project other than software. What Zittrain seems to be suggesting to me is that we need to understand how that translation works in order to continue that trend of fostering open-ness in all sorts of network spaces and activities. Part of what Wikipedia teaches us is that a very small but active minority that adheres closely to this ethos can generate immense benefit for a larger networked community that may be largely ignorant of the project’s key principles.

The threat, then, is more of the ignorance that closed and stagnate systems may foster that obscures how we nurture and encourage that sort of open-ness, the principle I see as key to Zittrain’s very well defined notion of generativity. Zittrain favors the term generativity over open-ness in the book seeing it as a proper superset. He even spends a good amount of the book providing fairly objective criteria for measuring generativity in systems, laying it out as a continuum not a singular goal. I don’t necessarily disagree and having a yard stick to help make better decisions is intensely useful. I think the key problem we need to understand and solve is fostering the network ethic that yields the most generativity. I think that ethos is rooted in open-ness–transparency, sharing, collaboration, the zero friction spread of ideas.

I think even if we set aside the closed and tethered examples upon which Zittrain’s critics mostly fixate, we still have a considerable challenge in understanding how open-ness arises in networked spaces and activities and how it leads to the sorts of better solutions that Zittrain suggests are worth preserving. Open-ness is not a genie that springs forth whole cloth from some bottle or magic pixie dust that can merely be sprinkled on projects and technologies to transform them in an eye blink. It is an ideal or set of ideals that needs to be continually re-examined and understand to be best applied for the most good.

In my reading, that is the challenge Zittrain has laid before us, a worthy one to which I am happy to lend thought.

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