Reconsidering ‘open’

October 4, 2007 § 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking alot about the broader meaning of ‘open’. I’ve spent years working on and advocating for open source. I love running meetings using open space. I now work on open education. One of my job titles says I am all about open philanthropy. I organized an event about open cities. What’s up with this? What is the connection? Is ‘open’ something bigger, something that has broad importance for our world?


As many of you know, my intuition says: yes, all the ‘open’ we’ve been playing with points quietly, albeit circuitously, to the future we want.

For the first time, I tried to tease out this intuition as a keynote to 250 amazing young people at the annual Millennium Scholars Think Again! conference. The general argument was something like: the principles of ‘open’ that we’re familiar with from Wikipedia, Linux and even Facebook can — and will — help us reconfigure the worlds of work, education, government, philanthropy and social change for the better. For the purpose of illustration, I zoomed in on the impact of Internet-enabled mass collaborative and participatory media are having on how we work, think and consume. I stole alot from Benkler (with credit).

The presentation: I started with a ‘who reads books vs. who uses Facebook’ quiz for the audience; did a quick tour of the collapsing industrial information economy; introduced the Scholars to some important thought leaders of ‘open’ (Linus, Lessig, Jimmy Wales, Stallman); made the jump to open education as an example of a mainstream non-software domain built on the principles as the Internet and open source software; and ended with a link to Paul Hawken and the idea of a massively connected social movement that is acting as humanity’s immune system. Phew. Slides are here on SlideShare.

The learning: a few of the Scholars thought that I was just talking about technology as our salvation. Of course, this is not the point. We can learn from the last 20 or 30 years of open technology, but this is really about seeing how the principles of ‘open’ work in a massive, connected, real world environment. The real opportunity is in taking these principles and applying them to all sorts of other parts of life. And, of course, the generation I was talking to is best suited to do this. Fluid, silo-less, chaotic, horizontal, p2p ways of doing things are second nature to them. If all goes well, we just need to encourage them take the way they already play and bring it into places of work, study and governance. 

Anyways, it was helpful to learn that I was coming across as too techie, and to remember that my natural inclination is to lean this way. Jane Rabinowicz from Santropol Roulant (also attending this event) was an amazing sounding board on this issue, suggesting that future talks should put equal weight on how people are using ‘open’ in things like meeting faciliation, organizational design and movement building. Of course, these are areas that I also play with, much more so than I play with software. So, it’s easy for me to talk about these things, and to give examples the work I’ve been doing in the past few years (see: open education track at the iSummit). I just need to stop taking these examples for granted, and loop them into my spiel.

Riffing off this insight (thanks, Jane!), I am going to do a bit of a formal comparison of the values and rules that connect all of the kinds of ‘open’ that I play with. Who knows where this goes, but I suspect there are some patterns in it all. I will post here an let you know.

§ One Response to Reconsidering ‘open’

  • Jane says:


    your keynote was amazing. i’m happy i got to be in the audience as you played with your current thoughts on ‘open’ for the first time. the content is compelling, and i certainly hope other groups have the chance to listen in to your thoughts on it. for me, as you can guess, the face-to-face experiments are particularly interesting, and i look forward to more chats about how you conceive of open movement-building.

    thanks for the plug


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