Has Open-Source Ideology Blinded Us To Danger?

Open-source software has paved the way for "open" everything. Is it always to our benefit?

Generally speaking, we applaud things that are open and look askance at things that are closed. In the tech world, open source software has done a lot to cement this thinking. What could be nobler than releasing one’s work freely to the world? And not only that, but encouraging others to tweak and transform and build upon it, too? That’s merely one example. Openness has long been considered one of Android’s great advantages over Apple’s mobile platform, and as 3-D printers become more accessible, we look forward to a future where they open up a new type of manufacturing to the masses.

But is open always something we should aspire to? Evgeny Morozov doesn’t think so. Making his case in the Times, he argues that "open" has become, in many cases, an empty or irrelevant concept.

Openness is today a powerful cult, a religion with its own dogmas. 'Owning pipelines, people, products or even intellectual property is no longer the key to success. Openness is,' proclaims the Internet pundit Jeff Jarvis.

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.

For many institutions, 'open’ has become the new 'green.' And in the same way that companies will 'greenwash’ their initiatives by invoking eco-friendly window dressing to hide less-palatable practices, there has also emerged a term to describe similar efforts to read 'openness’ into situations and environments where it doesn’t exist: 'openwashing.'

Alas, 'openwashing,' as catchy as it sounds, only questions the authenticity of 'open’ initiatives; it doesn’t tell us what kinds of 'openness,' if any, are worth pursuing. We must differentiate the many different types of 'open.'

Morozov goes on to note one British government official’s notion of "open-source politics"—essentially redistributing power from politicians and civil servants to engaged citizens on the Internet. More of this would be a good thing. Relying on it entirely would be disastrous. In a similar sense, you could think of a totally unregulated free market as the most "open" version of capitalism possible. Some think that’s something we should aspire to, but as we’ve seen, in that case, "open" can be very bad news for labor and wildlife and whatever else stands in the way of the great money-making dynamo.

But it’s not only in politics and business that the wisdom of open can be challenged. Most of us would like if Apple allowed us users a bit more control over our smartphones, sure. But Google’s commitment to Android’s openness means that smartphone manufacturers are free to slap their own user interfaces on top of the platform, often packed with widgets and other pre-installed apps. For savvy users, stripping away the junk isn’t much of a problem, but many presumably just live with it. Here you could argue that the initial openness leads to a worse experience for the user at the end of the line.

The stakes are even higher when we look at 3-D printing. With sites like Defense Distributed, we’re already getting a sense of how, along with chess sets and replacement parts and other knick-knacks, the technologies of the near future could allow users to print deadly weapons.

In part, the darker side of "open" is simply a reminder of the dangers of binary thinking. Open and closed aren’t always the only two options, and they’re not always entirely good or entirely bad. But as Morozov points out, it’s also a matter of language. It has to do with the way buzzwords and stock phrases can soften our judgment and shield things from the scrutiny they deserve. Take the tagline on the "Defense Distributed" website.


Wikis? Good! Nonprofits? Good! Collaborative projects? Good! Homemade guns for all? That should certainly be open for debate.

Read Morozov’s article in full over on the New York Times website.

[IMAGE: Bullet Hole via Shutterstock]

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  • miguelpeixe

    That's a pretty superficial look at things. Openness is this naive when you talk about smaller projects in smaller groups. The youth "cult", or "religion", as you say, is not on the same shape or as ripe as what is being discussed for government, or creative business models, or even way of life. Much more sophisticated methods of openness, such as liquid democracy, a middle term between direct and representative democracy, is on the fuzz right now and much more. Just look at fablabs, hackerspaces, a lot of isolated government initiatives, from NGOs to your neighbourhood. Participation interest is not something to be reduced to binary ideas, it's something that move us to a laboraty state, all of us. That is so rich for society!

    We are very, very, far from a post-modern anarchist world, even more when you talk about capitalist anarchy. That's absolutely not what a society with open dialog with their government would end up with.

    It's a big challenge, but, really, openness for itself is an old debate. We are complex humans beings, with complex society problems to handle and complex concepts of openness.

  • Emilia Palaveeva

    Criticism of buzz words is needed. But Morozov fails to evaluate open models in the context of the alternatives. He concludes his column with "A victory for openness might also signify defeat for democratic politics, ambitious policy reform and much else." Yet he does not provide an example or rationale why openness will defeat democratic politics, fails to  illustrate what he means by ambitious policy reform (given that open government is pretty much the only reform that is happening) and as for "much else"-- he leaves that as undefined as openness itself.