There seems to be a lot of talk of “open this”, “open that” and “open the other” these days: open source, open standards, open data, open access, open educational resources, open process… I sometimes get a sense of “open” being the new moral high ground but do not accept that an ideological basis for publicly-funded activity is adequate. This is not to say that I object to an ideological basis for personal action. This posting is a sandwich of under-cooked polemic on this topic inside some wholemeal bread.
While at the 2010 JISC Innovation Forum, I heard arguments that I would definitely place in the “rationality” category, particularly in a a session entitled “The Impact of Open”. This gave me heart as it indicated both that JISC is taking seriously the need to explain why “open” appears so frequently in its initiatives and because reactions to it indicated that the centre of gravity of conversation on “openness” is moving towards evidence and mechanism.
Why do I Object to Ideology?
To reiterate, my objection is to: “an ideological basis for publicly-funded activity”.
I also personally agree with propositions such as: “if public money is spent to effect ‘X’ then members of the public should have access to ‘X’, limited only if ‘X’ as a rivalrous good (e.g. health-care).” i.e. I believe this is an appropriate starting point, a default position in the absence of a case to the contrary.
The problem with ideologies is that they are prejudice presented as common sense. Consequently they are imposed through power-struggle and lead to alienation. War and a pendulum of changing political fashion are the wasteful consequence.
Clearly, we do need to operate as a society on the basis of shared values but the problems arise when ideologies include values at a level of detail beyond the very broad or build-in attachments to particular means. It is my view that we cannot go into much detail at all if attempting to describe common values. For example, “the purpose of government activity as a regulator and executive for public spending is to increase health, wealth and happiness of the people it represents”. This general idea seems to have been present since the enlightenment, for example in the writing of the hugely-influential John Locke, and found expression as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence and developed into Utilitarianism. I particularly like Stafford Beer‘s use of the term “Eudemony”, an echo back to ancient Greek ethics and an indicator that “happiness” is not understood in a hedonistic sense. I would also like to extend the meaning of “liberty” US Declaration of Independence to emancipation in a more general sense – freedom from the consequences of ignorance, from drudgery, and other forms of limitation – and move into the realm of Jürgen Habermas, who sees social theory as a fundamentally emancipatory endeavour. (I really should read “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”)
Prejudice, faith, belief, ideology, … (etc) are problematical because they do not provide us with the means to optimise benefit (eudemony, health-wealth-and-happiness); they do not address the mechanisms that we can trigger to effect change. They lack a theoretical basis. Such a basis also gives us an opportunity to understand the bounds; an understanding of the point at which we should draw-back from the application of a policy or principle is necessary in the interests of efficacy?
It should be clear that, if mechanism and theory are taken into account, asking about “openness” and public policy is not a single question but a prompt to ask questions in a range of contexts. It also requires us to make decisions about how we measure health-wealth-and-happiness. Radically-new models can be advanced and predictions made of whole-system benefits but it is probably better to consider the evolutionary paths; the world is a complex place with limited scope for imposition of master-plans and a historical record of disaster. Temper dreams with strategic thinking.
The Shadow of Legacy
The past naturally casts a shadow over the way we understand the world and the systems in place (NB: a general interpretation of “systems” is meant here). Sometimes we continue to operate in certain ways when there are better approaches. In a sense, the organisations and systems we have will always be partially obsolete as they arise out of a response to dynamic pressures. With an understanding of mechanism and theory, we are in a position to question the fitness for purpose of these organisations, institutions, systems etc… The risk of “pathological autopoiesis” (Stafford Beer in “Brain of the Firm”), literally killing yourself by trying to maintain yourself unchanged, is real for those who do not seek answers to such questions.
For example, the model of scholarly publishing we have arose from pressures in the past that made it viable and valuable then but at risk of pathological autopoiesis and an impediment today. Journals are only an instrument of scholarship (let us assume that scholarship has merit). See the reference in my closing section.
In another vein, the prevalent political ideology of the 1980’s led to many public sector organisations seeking ways of raising income from the assets created with public money. As digital resources became available, they were locked behind paywalls. It was only in the closing year or so of the previous UK government that we saw any serious change as, for example, the British Geological Society launched OpenGeoScience and the Ordnance Survey launched their OpenData. Thankfully the new coalition government seems to be supportive of open public sector data and I am optimistic that the members of the Public Sector Transparency Board will be influential in leading the government to rational rather than ideological policy.
There are many other cases where I believe restricting access, introducing pay-walls, etc in attempts at achieving sustainability leads to overall inefficiencies and sub-optimal health-wealth-and-happiness. I lack the convincing evidence and theory so I will keep them to myself.
Where are the Torch-bearers?
I’d like to conclude by returning to the “The Impact of Open” session at the JISC Innovation Forum. The person who most impressed me was Rufus Pollock, an economist who has applied himself to the mechanisms of openness. Two recent papers consider different questions:
- The Dissemination of Scholarly Information: Old Approaches and New Possibilities
- The Economics of Public Sector Information
These are the most important papers I have come across in recent times, not least because so many politicians are economists. This is the way to make a difference. The first makes some interesting reading about the limitations imposed on filtering/reviewing efficiency by orthodox journal models. The second argues that public sector information needs a thoughtful regulatory framework and concludes that marginal cost pricing (effectively zero for digital information) for information supply will generally provide the largest social benefit.
Rufus principally considers utility and equilibrium in his models, although not neglecting dynamical considerations in the papers. This would be a particularly interesting area to model, although challenging as it would probably require an approach such as agent based modeling. I would particularly like to see something like SKIN, “Simulating Knowledge Dynamics in Innovation Networks” used to probe some of the “what if” questions for various openness scenarios. If only I was a man of independent means and not a wage-slave…