The Future of Open and How To Stop It

Blogpost by Steve Song: “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….
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…(More).”