The Openwashing of Everything

Does the oft-used word “Open” actually mean anything? In Saturday’s New York Times, writer Evgeny Morozov tosses a handful of rhetorical cherry bombs:

“Openness” has become a dangerously vague term, with lots of sex appeal but barely any analytical content… This fascination with “openness” stems mostly from the success of open-source software, publicly accessible computer code that anyone is welcome to improve. But lately it has been applied to everything from politics to philanthropy; recent book titles include “The Open-Source Everything Manifesto” and “Radical Openness.” There’s even “OpenCola” — a true soda drink for the masses.

Jumping Into the Wayback Machine

Morozov’s article starts strong. The Free Software movement has radically transformed the tech world since its principles were codified in the early 1980s, and somtimes it seems everyone is trying to ride its cultural slipstream. The lingustic fuzziness he refers to, though, is far from a new development.

In 1998, marketing-minded members of the free software crowd coined the “Open Source” label to serve as a business-friendly buffer for the movement’s radical principles. Dissenters, including the founder of the Free Software movement, objected that the friendly label emphasized just one of the movement’s principles at the expense of others. The right to view source code, they insisted, couldn’t be separated from the right to use, modify, and redistribute it without cost. That debate left a linguistic rift between the Free Software and Open Source communities that exists to this day.

The quick explanation of Open Source that Morozov offers – “publicly accessible computer code that anyone is welcome to improve” – accurately summarizes the technical definition of the term. However, as the article continues it becomes clear that he’s unfamiliar with the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

Getting Philosophical

I’m loathe to side with Richard Stallman about anything, but it seems that his fears were well-founded: “open” is just too vague a word, as Morozov’s confusion testifies:

Take the “openness” celebrated by the philosopher Karl Popper, who defined the “open society” as the apotheosis of liberal political values. This is not the same openness implied by open-source. While Popper’s openness is primarily about politics and a free flow of ideas, open-source is about cooperation, innovation and efficiency — useful outcomes, but not in all situations.

Here, Morozov confuses the nature of open source software with the reasons that many businesses and large enterprises adopt it. This is a bit nitpicky, but he’s the one who took the discussion into the realm of philosophy and political theory, so he should be able to keep up. Simply put, Free Software is defined by four core freedoms granted to any user of a program.

Because software is covered by copyright law, these freedoms are codified in explicit licensing agreements like the GPL, MIT, and Apache Licenses. Putting aside the issue of geek privilege and the assumption that every user is a programmer, these four freedoms are quite radical. Even the linguistically watered-down definition of Open Source shares this emphasis on individual freedom.

Missing the Boat

If all of this were just semantic quibbling, Morozov would be right to brush it aside. Recall his comment, though: “While Popper’s openness is primarily about politics and a free flow of ideas, open-source is about cooperation, innovation and efficiency.”

This statement should be baffling to anyone who’s worked with Free or Open Source software. The movement’s motivating philosophy is absolutely political, and unquestionably focused on the free flow of ideas. In fact, many commercial software companies fought against Open Source for years by characterizing it as a politically motivated “virus.”

Free Software’s four freedoms have often given rise to innovative, efficient software, and the Open Source community does encourages cooperation and collaboration. However, those happy benefits have always been secondary to the underlying freedoms codified in the movement’s explicit legal licenses.

At this point, I’d be willing to accept that Morozov was simply constrained by space and wasn’t able to delve into the nuances of nerd history. However, the column pushes on to describe the problems with “open government” and other movements that have adopted the hip “open” label.

Of course, it’s important to involve citizens in solving problems. But who gets to decide which “particular problem” citizens tackle in the first place? And how does one delineate the contours of this “problem”? In open-source software, such decisions are often made by managers and clients. But in democratic politics, citizens both steer the ship (with some delegation) and do the rowing. In open-source politics, all they do is row.

It’s true that some open-source projects evolve hierarchies as they grow, and some traditional businesses pay their employees to work on open source. Returning to the four freedoms, though, Open Source is defined by the ability to use, modify, and share software for any reason without restriction.

The unruly reality of the Open Source ecosystem is that it’s full of developers who attack technical challenges and pursue hobby projects with reckless abandon. These developers set their own priorities and attract collaborators on the strength of their solutions rather than their authority to demand cooperation. Open Source software is no panacea for hard problems, but the picture Morozov paints is so muddy that it’s unrecognizable.

Making Morozov’s Point

The remainder of the article focuses on needling boosters of the Open Government movement, and rightly so. Simply giving people access to reams of government spending data), procurement records, memos, and other administravia does not improve the world. Finding evidence of corruption and inefficiency in mountains of raw data is no easy task, and it’s easy for unscrupulous public officials to avoid accountability while publishing XML feeds.

When needles are found in the haystacks, citizens still need effective tools to act on the information. The mechanisms for fine-grained policy change are still out of reach for most people: they need either money to pay lobbyists or time to become activists. This gap is a huge problem, and it corresponds to a serious Open Source issue I’ve written about before – the disenfranchisement of non-programmers.

Of course, Open Source philosophy can’t be applied blindly to government and societal issues. The “make a copy and do your own thing” freedom works on some levels, but the analogy is incomplete in a physical world. There is no backup Earth to roll back to, and there is no “undo” command to erase the consequences of ethnic cleansing. For big, society-level problems, the opportunity costs and consequences of failure can make chaotic experimentation an unacceptable approach.

Ironically, the reasoning behind Morozov’s muddled charactierization of Open Source suggests that he’d be quite comfortable with software radicals like Richard Stallman. Healthy democracy demands the real ability to change the status quo when it’s unacceptable – not just a “look, don’t touch” window into government. If Open Government is too vauge, the answer isn’t to attack Open Source. Instead, we should demand that its proponents articulate a clear and unambiguous explanation of what “open” really means – and hold them to it.

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