The Myth of Openness
In a world of technology openness is often treated as an imperative, something that has to be preserved or promoted as something inherently good. I’ve been a long time believer in this idea myself, but as I watch the evolution of technology I’m beginning to question its value and underpinnings. What exactly is it that makes openness worthy of a pedestal it’s often being put on?
I see two main reasons commonly being put forth:
1. The moral argument assumes a moral imperative to openness, or more precisely to the “freedom” that is seen underpinning it. Restrictions are seen as “immoral”.
2. The utilitarian argument is that openness facilitates a more vibrant marketplace and greater innovation.
The “Freedom” Myth
Both of these arguments, as well as common discourse on openness, seem to connote openness to freedom. If it is real freedom we’re talking about I would have no problem with these arguments and with the prioritization of openness. I doubt this is the case though. The word “freedom” seems to mean different things in different contexts. In a more colloquial sense it could simply refer to a lack of restrictions, but not necessarily to a state of being free, a state of not having basic moral rights violated.
Most technologies which proponents of openness would consider “closed” or restrictive would easily fall into the category where freedom (or lack of it) is being talked about colloquially. If you buy an iPhone do you really have your moral rights violated by the restrictions you agreed to upon purchasing it? Do you really become a mere slave, a minion in the Apple’s grand dystopian empire?
When real freedom is confused with a mere description of a lack of restrictions (even agreed upon restrictions) it is easy to color any and all restrictions as in some way “evil”, and therefore their opposite as an imperative.
Unfortunately, there are entire philosophies which do not believe this confusion to be a mistake, but rather encourage it wholeheartedly. For one thing there is a liberal tendency to describe freedom in a “positive” sense, describing freedoms *to* things, such as the “freedom to share”, “freedom to make copies”, “freedom to modify the source” and of course “right to free healthcare”, and the latest one “freedom of access (to the internet)”. This way of thinking tends to simply turn popular values into entitlements converted into “moral rights” or “freedoms”. Something that has become too important for too many people is all of a sudden, on that basis alone, considered a human right.
Sitting squarely within that camp is the Free Software movement with its “four freedoms”. If any software developer dares to offer software under terms which restrict any of these “four freedoms” the developer is seen as doing something immoral. If a user dares to agree to such terms when buying or downloading software the user is seen as “giving up freedom”, usually “for convenience”.
As might already be evident from my tone I wholeheartedly disagree with such philosophies. They tend to route around, and even actively attack, the idea of freedom of choice. If our moral imperative is to have a certain ability or thing that we’re all supposedly entitled to have by right then we are also saying that those who would provide such a thing have no choice, but to provide it.
This actually applies perfectly to the Free Software movement. The “four freedoms” espoused in the Free Software Philosophy are being put as a moral imperative over the freedom of a developer to choose the terms under which he would offer his work. Not only that, it also provides a moral imperative over user’s freedom to choose which terms to agree with. If the “four freedoms” are a moral imperative then everything that violates them should be eradicated.
It is this complete bypassing of the freedom of choice that makes such “freedom” philosophies suspect. Look at what they are targeting: agreements, specific kinds of agreements. They simply try to regulate what people may agree or disagree to. “Freedom of access to the internet” or “right to free healthcare” target disagreement with providing certain services for free. Free Software Foundation’s “four freedoms” like “freedom to share” target the users and developers ability to agree not to share. Why should such agreements be proclaimed as immoral? Why does the freedom to share trump the freedom to choose how you live your life?
I don’t believe my freedom is so much about the lack of restrictions as much as it is about my ability to make my own choices. Every choice is, after all, a choice of a restriction. If you choose to spend time on one activity you are effectively restricting yourself from spending time on another activity (supposing you cannot multitask between them). If you choose one item with one set of functions over another item with another you are effectively limiting yourself from the set of functions provided by the item you did not choose. If you choose to spend a thousand dollars on a fancy new laptop instead of on a new fridge you are again effectively restricting yourself from buying a fridge. The universe is full of restrictions. It is why we call them the “laws of nature”, and not “freedoms of nature”. Good luck butting against the fabric of the universe itself!
Just as much as I should be free to make any of these choices a developer should be free to choose the terms under which he is willing to offer his work, however restrictive or permissive they may be. I can choose not to agree or I can choose to agree and get what he’s offering.
That said, this isn’t to say there is no such thing as unreasonable terms. There certainly are, but if there are too unreasonable then, provided no government steps in to force certain (anti)market conditions, nobody will agree, and the unreasonable offer will fail.
Innovation Does Not Depend on Openness
As the technology continues to evolve we are seeing both “open” less restrictive ecosystems, and the more closed ecosystems thrive. On one hand we have the “open web”, and the Linux operating systems dominating the server, supercomputer and embedded markets. On the other hand we have “walled gardens” such as gaming consoles, Apple’s iOS devices, and various appliances.
My point in all of this is that neither of these two ways should take priority over either. There is no inherent advantage to being open or less restrictive, nor to being closed or more restrictive. So long as it is individuals making the choice of their own free will what really matters is whether we are advancing the technology industry, whether we are innovating, and whether we are providing a better user experience.
This leads me to the second reason people often put forth for prioritizing openness so much; that it fosters more innovation. I don’t really think this is necessarily the case. Not even freedom fosters innovation, it merely allows for it to happen, but as I’ve tried to point out above, what we’re talking about here when talking about openness and lack of restrictions isn’t even really freedom. If individuals are able to choose for themselves the freedom is still present. If they choose a platform that restricts some choices *within the confines of that platform*, that doesn’t mean they were not and are not free to choose another platform, or perhaps use multiple platforms at once in multiple different contexts.
I think saying that it is the open nature of a platform that causes innovation is like saying that a specific design of a car causes more innovation. This can actually be true, but this only means that the “openness” of a product is just one of its features. This puts openness on equal footing to any other particular product characteristic that may or may not be more conducive to innovation among its users. It certainly doesn’t mean that without openness innovation cannot and just does not happen.
What really drives innovation are needs and urges, which can manifest themselves in all kinds of environments, however structured they may be. There may be pressing problems that need solving or they may be a simple human desire to create something great, or it may be a competitive pressure from another company that motivates the need to create something better or lose business.
Once we get down to business of innovating, this innovation can happen through competition, cooperation or both, and it can just as well happen in closed environments according to the vision of a single person or a board, or it may happen in an open environment according to the consensus or network effect of a loose knit community. The important thing is that there is something that is creating at least one of these two basic building blocks of innovation: needs and urges (or desires).
If openness is so instrumental to innovation then how come that the poster company for a “closed mindset”, Apple, has been among the most innovative companies in the industry? If openness is such a key to innovation then how come Linux is still embarrassingly bad at certain tasks that the rest of the world finds completely basic (such as the multimedia stack)?
The worshipping of openness, and the moralizing of certain kinds of voluntary social structures over others is not only not conducive to innovation, it can actually stifle it. Free Software movement is a good, albeit perhaps extreme example. The point of the movement, as his founder and leaders will be very quick to point out, is absolutely not the innovativeness, quality or performance of the software that it produces. Instead it is the so called “freedom” of software users, according to a definition which apparently does not like the freedom of the user to choose what to agree or disagree with. Free Software advocates actively discourage the user or support of software that is actually more innovative, better performing and more satisfying towards users needs, if such software is offered under the terms they deem to be “wrong”.
That said, there certainly is a lot of Free Open Source Software which is very innovative, advanced, and provides a good user experience, but this is by far not a rule. There are some places where the open approach and the underlying social structures thrive, and others where they fail miserably.
What this points to is not that openness = innovation, but merely that openness can be one of the ways towards innovation, but not the only one. This is a far cry from a pedestal it is sometimes put on.
Therefore, openness is not paramount. Both the moral and utilitarian underpinnings for its sacredness fail under scrutiny. Neither is it the most “moral” way forward nor is it the most expedient way towards progress. It represents just one set of methods that sometimes works well and other times not, just like a multitude of other methods.
Dethroning The Myth
The values that I believe deserve far more attention, and should dethrone the myth of openness are these:
1. Freedom of choice. It is the most fundamental freedom, and it is a freedom to choose of one’s own free will. This does not refer to the guarantee of many choices. The multiplicity of choices is not the point. Multiplicity is a good thing, but it should not be forced. It should arise through the free choice of the individuals in the market. If we desire more choice than exists, we should build alternatives and foster competition, not moralize against those who choose differently.
2. User experience, quality, excellence, performance, advancement, providing true value. What we are trying for in the world of technology is to perpetually empower people to live happier and more fulfilling lives, to provide opportunities that were not possible before, and to do things better, cheaper and faster, but also with more meaning. Technology is about evolving and making our world better.
Whatever we do I believe it should not violate these two principles, and I do not posit this as a moral imperative at all, but rather as a mere proposition, or even simply a recognition of what actually works. Give me the freedom to choose, and a vision of something great, and we’re gonna be getting somewhere. Whichever method you choose to achieve these dreams are your right. You might want to open everything up, take a more networked and spontaneous approach, and see the magic unfold, or you might want to build a more rigid structure (ala Apple) based on your uncompromising vision of how the result should be. So long as those who participate do so voluntarily, I say go for it.