Open vs. open vs. etc

February 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

As I posted way back when, I have been reflecting a great deal on the question: why are so many people attracted to the word ‘open’?

If you scan the net or just listen to the conversations around you, the word ‘open’ is popping up as a modifier for almost every imaginable area of endeavor. Standards. Content. Design. Innovation. Education. Politics. Media. Government. Philanthropy. Religion. Fitness. Systems (social, technical and phsyical). Orgware. Meetings. And, of course, software.

Even I have to admit, much of this is just trendy bollocks. Open source software and the general groovy openness of the Internet have made people glom on to open everything (or open anything?). As a result, a good number of ‘open x’ ideas are simply Internet-ized angles on old, broken, closed processes (e.g. see wikipedia definition of ‘open source politics‘).

Still, my intuition tells me there is something bigger afoot than just trendy babble. I believe this ‘something’ is related in part to the profound crisis of political / social / spiritual imagination that we currently face, especially in the west. Our old imaginative models of left vs. right don’t work anymore. They don’t describe reality, and they aren’t helping us make a better world.

In ‘open’ people somehow see hope. They see an narrative container for democracy, inclusion, invention, progress and diversity. At least, that’s what it feels like on the surface … and that’s what has spurred me to dig into the question ‘what do people really mean by open?’

Before the holidays, I did a little 30 minute thought experiment: I created a chart comparing four very different yet well developed domains of ‘open’.

The domains included open source software, open space meetings, open societies (Karl Popper‘s idea) and open systems (in complexity theory and nature). You can see the chart on googledocs.

The idea was very simple: compare the base ideas behind each of these areas of ‘open’ to see if there is anything substantively in common. Or, as a question, is there an ‘essence of open’ across these ideas?

While I need to dig deeper (what do you expect for 30 minutes of futzing with a chart?), at least two essential elements pop to the surface from this comparison: motion and transparency.

Motion is the most striking commonality of the ‘four opens’ in the chart. Energy moves between open systems and the world around them, transforming both the system and its surroundings. Popper’s open society is driven by social mobility, with people moving between classes and identities. The magic of open space meetings flows from people moving between spaces (vote with your feet) and iteratively shuffling ideas that matter (the agenda wall). And, of course, open source is very much about the motion of evolving code and the flow of ideas inside / outside / between related software communities. With motion comes malleability, adaptability and resilience.

Transparency also runs across these ‘four opens’, with each example including moving parts that are easy to see and act upon. People can see from the inside out, from the outside in and sideways in all directions. This multi-directional visibility is probably quite critical to what attracts people to the open concept. It implies a certain democracy without scarcity: all can see, understand and react to the system without taking away the ability of others to do the same. The power that flows from knowledge is not scarce. This may sound a bit flaky right now, but my gut says ‘non-zero-sum democracy’ is one of the main opportunities in open.

Of course, the places where there are not overlaps are just as interesting. The most notable is that ‘collaboration’ — central to things like open space and open source — doesn’t really show up in the other two domains. It may be that collaboration is a good application of ‘open’ (ie. we need to work in an open manner to collaborate well) but is not really a part of the essence that draws us to ‘open’. Similarly, the idea of accessibility — the free beer side of open source freedom — really only appears in the software domain.

Anyways, these are not profound breakthroughs. ‘Adaptable’ and ‘transparent’ are well known principles of things like open source. However, I do find the simple patterns (and non-patterns) across the different open domains somehow illuminating. I definitely want to dig deeper into ‘the meaning of open’ and see what more there is to learn.

Next step #1: read more on open innovation and complexity theory so I am grounded in other people’s thinking. Next step #2: double click on this ‘meaning of open’ comparison. Katherine Reilly, Michael Lewkowitz and Allison Powell have all expressed interest in doing this with me (yay! … and others welcome). Next step #3: pull this thinking into the open philanthropy manifesto I am writing this quarter and see if there is traction.

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