Whence the Virtue of Open

The word 'whence' means "from what place, source, or cause", and that is the question I would like to address with respect to the virtue of 'open'.

The question is raised in the context of Heather Morrison's recent comments on The Dialectic of Open. Unfortunately I don't have the full text of the remarks, but I have a detailed abstract and slides, which is enough to work from. 

Morrison's argument is straightforward and effective. Not all instances of 'open' are virtuous. It is not hard to think of instances of 'open' which are bad - an 'open wound', for example, or leaving your front door open while you're on a business trip. 

Morrison focuses on one of those contradictions, where 'open' is reified to the point where it means 'open for business' (ie., open for commercial exploitation). For example, she writes, "The province of Ontario under the Ford government describes itself as open for business. In this context, open means open for exploitation, and closure is protection for the environment and vulnerable people."

In the academic context, the meaning of 'open' is equally problematic, she writes. "Open education can be seen as the next phase in the democratization of education, a new field for capitalist expansion, a tool for authoritarian control and/or a tool for further control of the next generation proletariat or precariat."

Because Morrison is operating from a Marxist perspective, she focuses on the contradictions inherent in our use of the term open. One good example (page 20) is sufficient to make the point:
  • On the one hand, the government's open data policy says, "The information provider grants you a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive licence to use the information, including for commercial purposes...”
  • On the other hand, the First Nations Governance Information Centre's policy vision is that "every First Nation will achieve data sovereignty in alignment with its distinct worldview."
We could just say that one interpretation overrules another, or that one of these approaches is simply wrong, but none of these responses will satisfy. There are many cases where we say that access to and use of knowledge and data should be open, but where access to and use of knowledge and data should be limited or even closed.

We don't have to adopt a Marxist perspective to see the difficulty here. In my own discussions about open content and open access, I get the same sort of pushback. There are numerous reasons (many of them really good reasons) for access and use to be limited.

Indeed, Morrison's argument keys in on one limitation I have consistently advocated for my own work: the limitation on commercial use. I use a Creative Commons By-NC-SA license on all my content because I don't want my work to be enclosed by commercial providers and eventually converted to a commercial work. Morrison lists a number of cases where this has happened to open access scholarly work.

Other reasons for limiting access abound:

  • Access and use should be limited because the content is just a draft and should not be taken as final and fully-formed work
  • Or if it's something I've saved to my own computer, I shouldn't be required to grant open access to my computer
  • Or it should be limited to provide a safe space for people to make mistakes and try things out
  • Or (from my days sitting on governing boards) it should be closed so people will feel free to speak openly and honestly
  • Or limitations should exist because its cultural or heritage content, and use would amount to cultural appropriation
  • Or it's things like credit card numbers, passwords, or private keys
  • Or it's private and personal data, such as employment records, financial information or health care information
  • Or (as we often hear inside NRC) it should be limited because it's intellectual property, and being managed as a trade secret
  • Or it's information that pertains to national security, where the release of it would create danger to individuals, enterprises, or society as a whole
  • Or where the information is false and misleading, or libelous, or slanderous
  • Or it reflects an individual or company (or your employer) in a bad light
It's easy to find examples of each of these arguments being made. I think that the case can be pretty unequivocally made that open access is not always a virtue.

So why would I say it's a virtue, and what could I possibly mean by that?

In an interview yesterday I explored the second of these questions: what I mean by that. And what I mean is this: not simply that everything should be open, but rather, that we should start with a preference for open as the default position. That is to say, instead of arguing for, or giving reasons why, something should be open, we should be required to argue for, or give reasons why, something should be closed.

Right now the opposite is generally the case. It is certainly the case in my workplace, where they require me to submit a 'Request to Disclose' form every time I want to publish an article or give a talk (fortunately this does not apply to my blog posts or newsletters, and fortunately this is loosely interpreted, but I could imagine a much more stringent application of this requirement, and know it applies in other government departments).

The opposite is also the default case for society at large. While historically any work was what we would consider to be open unless unless it was copyrighted, the law changed a number of years ago to the effect that everything is presumed to be covered under full copyright (ie., "all rights reserved") unless explicitly stipulated otherwise. That's why we need something like Creative Commons.

Now it's probably impractical to expect that the law will revert to the status where you had to register your ownership in order to be protected by copyright law. And there are good reasons why the law exists as it does (for one thing, it means we no longer need to pay money or hire lawyers to protect our content (contrast this with the cost and complexity of registering a patent)).

So what I'm saying is that, from the perspective of the owner, who is currently protected under copyright, it is preferable to license content and data as 'open access' as a default, reserving the closing of access for cases where it is required or warranted.

Astute readers will note that I have not yet defined open access. I'm not the sort of person who likes definitions; I think that for the most part, people know open access when they see it, and can recognize when access is being limited. 

And I should be clear that I consider commercial use of content to be a way if limiting access. Heather Morrison's examples make this clear. When content and data are used commercially, it is for the purpose of generating revenue by in some way limiting access. There are many way to limit access for commercial gain; charging money directly for access is only one of those: require them to submit information, require them to view advertisements, require them to purchase software as a condition of viewing, require them to endorse or offer some service (aka 'viral' marketing), etc. 

So what I mean by open is very closely aligned with UNESCO's most recent statement regarding open educational resources, specifically, resources that "in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others."

Now if there's a 'commercial use' that doesn't violate the "no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution" then I don't really have a problem with it. But there aren't too many commercial activities that exist where that condition is not violated. 

But now we get to the core issue: what distinguishes cases where 'open' is a virtue from those where it is not? Morrison writes, "Whether a particular instance of 'open' is a good thing depends on the context and one’s perspective." Even if this is true, I don't think it's helpful. What does it mean to say it depends on the context? By virtue of what features of the context is open virtuous or not? And how do we resolve cases where there are multiple conflicting perspectives?

I've suggested above that what I mean is that we should be 'open' by default. The question then becomes, what arguments could we make to limit access? The answer isn't exactly the same as the list of arguments I provided above. Rather, what we want to know is when arguments like the ones above are successful, and when they are not.

Let's take the case of cultural appropriation as a way to address this. In particular, I can recall debates and disputes about the teaching of yoga. One person expresses the divide this way: "It isn’t cultural appropriation to practice yoga. It is cultural appropriation to take the practice of yoga, minimize it into a trendy exercise routine, and slap on a religious prayer at the end that you don’t even believe in."

I can imagine a similar argument being made in other contexts. It isn't cultural appropriation, for example, to use the words 'sweat lodge', to build one in your back yard, or to use it for yourself and friends. But it is cultural appropriation to put up a big sign saying "Fred Smith's Authentic Indian Sweat Lodge" and charge people for admission.

Interestingly, I think, this applies even within the cultural tradition. For example, I was raised in a more-or-less protestant Christian environment (my mother was United and my father was Anglican). But if I were to build my own church building, advertise it as "authentic western Christianity", and use it to serve burgers and hold late-night parties, I would be engaged in the same sort of disrespect.

And I think there's an important distinction to be drawn here. It's not about ownership, in the sense that there is a commodity that can be bought and sold. It's about control. People of Indian descent, people of First Nations descent, people of Christian descent, see these institutions and practices as part of their identity. To take something like this, and turn it into Mulan, is to trivialize it, and in an important sense take away their individuality or group identity.

This matters. And in general, other things besides 'open' matter. Open isn't the one and only virtue in our society or in our lives. Many other things matter as well. 

So how do we decide what matters? I've discussed this a lot elsewhere. For me, it boils down to what I have called 'the Semantic Condition', which overall is a good candidate as describing the basis for meaning, truth and value in a society.

The Semantic Condition contains four elements: openness, autonomy, diversity, and interactivity. I've written about these four conditions over the years, and will do so again. So now the question resolves to: whence the virtue of the Semantic Condition? And how do the elements of the semantic condition trade off with respect to each other.

I have elsewhere written that the basis for the semantic condition is that these conditions are what enable a network (whether an individual or a society) to grow and develop, to learn from experience, to know, and to continue to exist. They do so by creating the conditions in which a network is resistant to cascade phenomena, stagnation, and network death. (And let me be very clear here: these conditions constitute a hypothesis - there may be additional conditions, there may be different conditions; this is a matter for empirical study).

A simple example: vision functions because each retinal cell functions independently, stimulated by photons unique to it, and to no other. Otherwise, there would be no variation in our visual field - no objects, no change, no colours. Someone like Kant might deduce that autonomy of the retinal cell is a necessary condition for the possibility of perception, but I can be less stringent, and say simply that it works this way. 

So from where I stand, the issue of cultural appropriation isn't one of property - it isn't a question of ownership per se. It's a question of autonomy - by acting in a way that minimizes and trivializes a culture (whether or not for commercial gain) you are infringing on the individual autonomy of people who actually belong to that culture. It's not that you have stolen their property (the whole language of 'property' is really inappropriate in this context) it is that you have limited their possibility of fully expressing who they are.

So, sometimes things like autonomy are more important than openness. Sometimes we have to prioritize the measures we take to preserve an individual's capacity for agency, for personal self-identification, or (moreover) to protect the diversity of society, or to ensure that no single voice prevails over the interactivity required for a community to function. 

So how do we make that calculation?

The first thing to understand is: it isn't a calculation. When we 'balance' openness against the other elements of the Semantic Condition we aren't measuring and weighing outcomes and impacts, harms and benefits. As I said the other day, these are tools that are empty of value, and not instruments for defining value.

No, the trade off between these different virtues is whatever we say it is, where 'we' is defined as society as a whole. Ideally, in a well-functioning society, we are already operating according to these principles, and hence have the mechanisms qua society to address these questions. Less ideally, we need to approach them by describing and defining society in such a way that best supports these principles - that is, best supports a society's capacity to grow and develop, to learn from experience, to know, and to continue to exist.

How might this be accomplished? In some more recent work I've been looking at the idea of community as consensus where there are mechanisms in place for us to arrive at statements of meaning, truth, value and the rest in a consistent and fault-tolerant way.

And this, finally, takes us to the question of the role openness plays in the creation of consensus and of the mechanisms of society more generally. 

And viewed from this perspective, the virtue of openness reveals itself almost naturally and inevitably: without openness, communication is impossible. There is a long list of types of openness that make this clear.

For example: the openness of words. If we cannot exchange words with each other, and moreover, words about which we share our understanding of meaning and intent, then each person is speaking a secret language, and we cannot communicate. 

For example: an open medium. If we cannot all share the same airspace in which words are exchanged, such that a word uttered by you can be heard by me, then communication is impossible. Communication, literally, requires a commons. 

When viewed from the perspective of society as a network, openness is essentially the capacity of each individual entity to interact with another, such that (as I've said on various occasions) a change of state in the one, may result in a change of state in the other. Without this, it is not possible for entities in the network to change, they so they remain unchanged and unchangeable, in a state of network death.

We will find, over time and as a society, that just as there is a sweet spot for connectivity, there is a sweet spot for openness. And that point where be where the default for openness meets the push-back from people on the basis of other values such as autonomy, diversity and interactivity. And where, exactly, this sweet spot is, needs to be defined by the community, and achieved as a consensus.

Image Source: Notes from Stillsong Hermitage


  1. Thanks Stephen, these are very interesting arguments. In case it is not clear my critique is that of a long-term open access advocate. For example, my blog The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics https://poeticeconomics.blogspot.com (I hope that readers are able to access it as corporate algorithms appear to be blocking some potential readers in the past year or so) is OA and has been focused primarily on OA and transition to OA since 2004; until a few years ago the license was CC-BY-NC-SA but currently I try to avoid CC licenses, as I view these as problematic and less important to scholarship than broad-based fair dealing. For example, we need to be able to re-use material that copyright owners do not wish us to share; in my research, this includes material on the web pages of OA publishers, typically licensed All Rights Reserved even if the OA works use CC-BY.

    Your point about open in communication is interesting. A type of dialectics that would be useful in this analysis, and that I did not include in the CCA presentation (to keep this to a reasonable length) is Hegelian dialectics. That is, the concept of open immediately invokes the opposite, closure, and tends towards change as we move from one opposite to another. In Hegelian terms, this is being, nonbeing, and becoming. Language is effective for communication because it is open (almost all humans can speak, hear, and comprehend language), but also because it is to some degree closed (words have specific meanings and the relationship between concepts is expressed through specific grammatical constructs). Becoming in this instance is illustrated by the evolution on language.

    In future given time I would love to explore further, for example some people are being to look at the relationship of Western dialectics, taoism, and/or Indian philosophy; I wonder if anyone has thought to compare with traditional indigeneous knowledges. If anyone has any references, tips, or thought on this (and particularly how to apply to the "open" movements), sharing would be appreciated.

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