I’m not sure where I’m going with this post, I’ll be honest. Fair to say that I’ve ventured into heavier academic territory than I’m used to thanks to a tweet from Anne Galloway:

“Openness, it seems, is beyond disagreement and beyond scrutiny.” Or is it? A critique of open politics: (via @TOMM7)

Before I get to that, I’ll come clean: I believe whole-heatedly in the value of openness. I’m not entirely clear what that means in the day-to-day politics of life, but for work in the online cultural world, it means at least aiming to share content and data, build systems to do it better, and encourage people to use and remix our material.

A post from Timothy Vollmer, Library catalog metadata: Open licensing or public domain?, over on the Creative Commons blog, is effusive in its praise of being not just open but as open as possible in sharing your data. In reviewing OCLC’s recent recommendation that its members adopt the Open Data Commons Attribution license (ODC-BY) when they share their library catalog data online, he argues – with good reason – that ODC’s attribution (BY) requirement is too restrictive in an open data environment:

There are good reasons for relying on community norms for metadata attribution instead of requiring it as a condition of a licensing agreement. The requirement to provide attribution through a contract like ODC-BY is not well-suited to a world where data are combined and remixed from multiple sources and under a variety of licenses and other use restrictions.

He concludes by noting that cultural institutions (including The British Library, Europeana, the University of Michigan Library, and Harvard) have adopted a completely non-restrictive licence, the CC0 Public Domain Dedication, for publishing their catalog data online, with those institutions making no more than a polite request that users credit them.

From this, we see that a truly normative approach for the library community would be a public domain dedication such as CC0, coupled with requests to provide attribution to the source (e.g. OCLC) to the extent possible. Such an approach would maximize experimentation and innovation with the cataloging data, in keeping with the mission and values of the library community…

That’s all good then, but keep that innovation idea in the back of your mind.

Back to that tweet, and the article by Nathaniel Tkacz, “From open source to open government” (ephemera 12(4): 386-405; pdf). It draws heavily on an analysis of ideas in Karl Popper’s The Open Society – not something I’ve read but I can follow along ok. In it, open is defined, Tkacz argues, through what it isn’t – in the political sphere it’s democracy as against tyranny. Tkacz wonders what open can now mean politically in a world that’s fundamentally democratic and therefore already open.

In short, Popper’s argument against totalitarian knowledge – replicated faithfully by his close friend and intellectual ally Hayek to defend free markets and private property over centralised planning – is compatible with and even constitutive of neo-liberal capitalism. And it is these same forms of closure that the second coming of openness, together with its new set of conceptual allies, tries to address. But what to make of this second coming? (p.403)

Tkacz cites Google’s claim for openness, a claim based on the commerce that openness sustains. He quotes Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President of Product Management at Google, from a 2009 post “The meaning of open” (no link available) on Google’s Public Policy Blog:

In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn’t derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products.

This is survival of the fittest talk; energetic agency will win out and enterprise will come to the fore.

So what about open culture, or the cultural commons. Is openness similarly defined by what it isn’t in the cultural online world? Probably; it isn’t dark webs, closed agreements, unlinked data, or copyright protection. It isn’t unreasonable access charges or reproduction costs. It isn’t restrictive re-use clauses. But if those are the things we’re trying to break down to create a future cultural world of open data, access and content, what’s left for openness as an idea when we get there? Will we find ourselves battling with our own form of cultural closures?

When all the content’s open and shareable, and commerce has feasted on our taonga, how open will the results be? At that point will we realise we’ve created a world for the technical and creative elite that excludes others? Are we just oiling another industry that will be as self-serving as those that have come before? Or can we trust them (who?) to build and create an open world that includes all of us?

I hope it’ll be the latter, and believe it’ll probably end up a bit of both, but as the people who can make this happen it’s on us to be aware and mindful of how our taonga serve our communities in the future. This final quote from Tkacz, and its final words in particular, are a good way to end:

Rather than using the open to look forward, there is a need to look more closely at the specific projects that operate under its name – at their details, emergent relations, consistencies, modes of organising and stabilising, points of difference, and forms of exclusion and inclusion. (p.404)