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Not what, not who, or how, but Why is Open?

30 November 2015 One Comment

This is an approximation of my talk at OpenCon Cambridge on Thursday 26 November 2015. Any inaccuracies entirely mine. There is also a video recording of the actual talk.

The idea of OpenCon was borne out of the idea that the future belonged to young scholars and that helping them to be effective advocates for the world they want to work in was the best way to make progress. With that in mind I wanted to reflect not on the practical steps, of which there will be much more this afternoon, but on some questions that might help when the going gets tough. When you might question why you would want to continue to try to change the world?

We often talk about the “what” of Open. Open Source, Open Access, Open Data, Open Educational Resources. We parcel the world up into those things which are open by some definition, and those which are not. Definitions are important, particularly for political purposes. We can, and no doubt will, continue to argue about which licenses should be allowed. These dichotomies are almost certainly too harsh. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Given the success, some might say too-fast progress of the Open movement we often find ourselves asking who is open. In a world where those we might have previously regarded as the enemy suddenly appear as new allies who should we allow to call themselves open? Open-washing is a real problem, some players use these ideas cynically as marketing tools or smoke screens. But there are people in unusual places genuinely engaged with changing the system. Some more successfully and thoughtfully than others it must be said but should we discourage them by refusing them the label? How we can manage both inclusion and rigour is an important question we need to consider. But this is also not what I want to talk about today.

Nor do I want to talk about the how. This is important, and others will cover it better than I can today. No, today I want to talk about the why of Open.

First there are the big whys, the motivations for greater access to research and scholarship and the greater agency this can bring to people’s lives, for an improved democracy, a better environment, healthier lives and an informed society. All these are good motivations, but with the success of the Open movements we perhaps need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of scrutiny as to whether we are delivering.

Does Open Access truly put research in people’s hands or do we have more work to do on discoverability, comprehensibility? Is Open Government really putting more power in the hands of the disadvantaged or is it just accentuating the gaps between those who already had access to the levers of our democracy and exacerbating a growing wealth divide with an increasing digital one? Could we do more to link the needs of real patients with the direction of medical research? How can we measure progress against these much more challenging goals when we don’t even know how much of the literature is publicly available?

I think we need to do better, not in just articulating the reasons for open approaches but in testing and measuring whether those approaches are delivering. We need to do more than just throw the existing content over the wall of the ivory tower if we want to change the asymmetries of power and privilege that are tied to the existing asymmetries of information. For many of us that’s why we got into this in the first place.

Why brings me to the second set of whys. The smaller ones, but the ones that matter personally, and the ones that sustain us in the face of setbacks. I know many people came into advocacy for Open because of a personal frustration, the inability to do something. In many cases a personal loss played a role. Sometimes that motivation comes out of a deep sense of who we are, and sometimes its a result of happenstance and serendipity. I got into this space by accident, and I kept doing it because it seemed to work. And lets be honest, some of us got into this initially to impress someone.

We don’t often talk about these underlying motivations, but perhaps we need to, because without understanding them we avoid talking about a tension that lies at the heart of the movement. The different pathways that brought us to this space tend to divide into two. On one side we have those who concerned with freedoms, about the freedom to act. Stallmans focus of Free Software around the three freedoms is perhaps the most obvious example of this strand. This is an individualistic, sometimes even libertarian view. On the other side are those who want to build communities of practice, sharing communities, that create value for each other.

Often these strands work together but there is a tension at their heart and it surfaces in our work. When we talk about licensing we talk about the freedoms of users and skip across the freedoms that authors are giving up. Freedom to act (or the lack of it) often brings people together but by definition becoming a community means giving up freedoms. There are benefits to be sure. Simply being a part of this community, attending these meetings is one of them. But if we are to work effectively together, to strengthen what each of us do, then we need to understand our own motivations better. By respecting the desire for freedom as well as recognising which ones we need to collectively give up we will build a stronger movement. And to do that we need to question each other.

And that questioning brings me to the third why. Because in the end what drives all this is the questioning of how the world does (and could) work, how we can make it better, what we can build to help that. It is the open to of new ideas, the open with of inclusion that supports a diversity that can bring those new ideas. At the root of all the frustrations, all the building, all the desire for community, is this question of why the world is as it is. It’s that questioning that makes us human, and as is often the case it is children who are the most human, asking the question repeatedly in that infinite regress of “why….and why is…but why…”.

In the end it isn’t actually a question. It’s the ability to question that matters. It’s a statement.

Why is open.