Better Sharing

Last November Creative Commons posed a question to 12 prominent global open advocates: "What does better sharing for a brighter future look like to you?" I was not one of the advocates in question, but I do have opinions. So I thought I'd comment on each of the 12 visions articulated.

Never forget that an open palm is a greater platform of power than a clutching fist. -- Maria Popova

Starting off with a 'platform of power' wasn't a good idea. From my perspective, the idea of 'better sharing' as a means to wield power is greatly misguided. I mean, yes, an open palm is much better than a clutching fist (whatever that could actually be), but it's better precisely because it's not attempting to seize power (by force or otherwise).

Openness eschews power. It may be a philosophy about ownership, possession and commerce, but it is most of all a philosophy about our relations with other people in the world, and how this relation is much less about control, and much more about cooperation and co-existence.

Sedikit demi sedikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit (meaning: many a mickle makes a muckle). -- Biyanto Rebin

The translation expands to actually make three or four points: 'many small things make a big result', 'many hands make lighter work', 'sharing empowers the less privileged', and something about collaboration. Taking all of these points together leads to something like a philosophy of collectivism. And yes, we're all in this together, to a degree. But we're not all working for that one big result. Each of us is making our own way in the world, sometimes collectively, sometimes individually. 

Openness benefits everyone. That's the main point here, I think. It reduces our dependence on single individuals (or corporations, or governments, or other concentrations of wealth and power, by distributing the workload) and in so doing replaces our current extractive economic model with a cooperative and constructive economic model. If it doesn't benefit everyone, it is no longer open; it is one person (or class, or whatever) exploiting the other.

Better Sharing Brighter Future is happy and joyous open sharing where creativity, knowledge and innovation can prosper. -- Catherine Stihler

This quote speaks to the spirit of sharing (happy) and the outcome of sharing (prosperity). In this way it speaks both to the idealists who see sharing as a way of life and to the pragmatists who see sharing as a way of making money. The combination also suggests a causal relationship between the two: sharing happily helps make you prosperous, and becoming prosperous makes you happy to share. And ultimately, these can be combined to make a single point.

Openness is rewarding. Whatever it is that we want, whether it be prosperity or joy or something in between, sharing generally provides it. It is indeed a more effective mechanism toward these outcomes than the traditional mechanisms of hoarding wealth and influence or exerting power. It's a truism that has been understood since the days of Laozi (老子) and yet still escapes so many people to this day. But as we'll see below, this isn't guaranteed, and it isn't the point of openness.

In my utopia, we figure out how to create and keep separate rules that regulate the relationships between creators and their industry - Cory Doctorow

There should be one set of rules that regulate how actors within (commercial) creative industries relate to each other, and how these actors relate to their (non-commercial) audiences. Cory Doctorow doesn't use the word 'commercial' but it's hard to make sense of the distinction otherwise. He dances around this point by distinguishing between 'creators' and 'audiences', but the real distinction is between commercial and non-commercial. But the main point - and I think it's a valid one - is that we should treat someone creating a mixtape or to share with friends the same way we treat some company creating a compilation album to sell in stores.

Openness is non-commercial. That doesn't mean commercial entities cannot participate in the sharing ecosystem, but it does mean that the purpose of that participation can't be to simply make money. Now it is true that making money is the sole purpose of some entities, which makes it hard for them to share. That may be. But there's nothing to say that the rules and philosophies that govern them should govern the rest of society (and many reasons why they should not).

Better Sharing, Brighter Future means that as we continue to find better ways to share ideas, products and solutions on the internet, we’d directly be working towards a brighter future for ourselves and generations to come. -- Ebenezar Wikina

This quote continues the prosperity theme articulated by Catherine Stihler but adds to it a focus on the future, and the idea I think is that because we're finding better ways to share today, we are creating a better future. This is a thoroughly modernist perspective on sharing, a philosophy of progress, based in the idea that the things we do create a better future. The unspoken corollary, though, is that sharing involves short term sacrifice for longer term gain. Both amount to the same thing.

Openness is progressive. It is part of a wider philosophy that (to quote Wikipedia) "holds that it is possible to improve human societies through political action. As a political movement, progressivism seeks to advance the human condition through social reform based on purported advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization." It is the opposite of an "I got mine" philosophy (and we should be wary of attempts to reconcile the two views).

To share anything freely and openly, much like we share air, is to be alive. -- David Moinina Sengeh

Normally the things we share - like air - are in abundance. But various works of fiction (like Total Recall and The Expanse) contemplate the dystopia that results when something we all have in common - like air - becomes a commodity that is bought and sold. The more something is essential to life, it seems to me, the more dystopian a commodification of it becomes. People in desert climates have learned how oppressive the concentrated ownership of water can become. And our current information dystopia should teach us the price of commodified knowledge and culture.

Openness makes us alive. This is true in a literal sense, in cases where sharing is necessary for all of us to live. It is also true in a metaphorical sense, where the act of making life possible, or at the very least, more pleasurable, makes us feel alive. It also speaks, in a sense, to the purpose of life - granting, though, that this purpose varies from person to person. It can make us feel alive, it can be done joyously, it can make life more sustainable - but it doesn't have to. How we share doesn't matter - but when there is no sharing, there is no doubt, that life becomes very hard indeed.

It means understanding that sharing and open content is a means, not an end. -- Tyler Green

Tyler Green explains, "what we get, we the community of scholars, we the broader community of people, what we get is an opportunity to understand how this material fits within the worlds around us, allowing new and different ideas to more fully inform us." It is true that we may obtain this result, but it is in my view neither necessary nor sufficient for such a result. Sharing is not necessary because, if we had all the knowledge in the world, and did not share it, we would still obtain the same insight. And it is not sufficient because, even if we share, there is no guarantee that we will obtain these - or any - insights. 

Openness is not transactional. It is not a 'means to an end'. The value of openness is not found in specific (and often personal) benefits to be obtained from being open. Sure, we may get these benefits. But there are no guarantees. Openness is not a currency we exchange for other goods. It is a part of a broader approach to life and society that, if they are pursued together, make life more possible, more meaningful, and more enjoyable (whatever those may look like to people). In my own philosophy I see as also diversity such things as diversity, interactivity and autonomy. (I wanted to word this point more positively, and use whatever term was the opposite of 'transactional', but it appears there is none, which by itself says more about our society than anything else.)

To me, with better (open) sharing, comes the promise of equality. -- Medhavi Gandhi

Medhavi Gandhi explains, "better sharing means enhanced relationships, collaborations between people, and an opportunity to build a world free of barriers/boundaries." But as just pointed out, openness comes with no such guarantees. It's a promise that may yet remain unfulfilled. Numerous commentators have pointed to the potential of openness and sharing to become just another instance of colonialism, a way of overwhelming other cultures through the abundance of our own, in the same way providing free grain in a country undercuts that country's capacity to grow grain. 

Openness works both ways. It is not a charity where the rich 'give' to the poor. It involves listening and being a part of others' knowledge and culture as much as it involves the sharing of our own with them. If all the movement is in one direction, it is no longer openness, it is broadcasting. As we have seen, simple broadcasting creates the possibility for numerous ills, including propaganda, oppression, disempowerment, and more.

The powerful hide important data to prevent us from demanding change. This is true with armed violence in Brazil, but is also true where you live on issues that you care about. Find a way to use open data to make changes in your society. --  Cecília Oliveira

This at first appears to be yet another instrumentalist interpretation of openness, yet another description of the benefits of sharing rather that describing what better sharing is. But we can see that it's not that simply by observing that many people do not see these sorts of changes as beneficial. Openness is double-edged: we use the same tools to protect ourselves from criminality that criminals use to protect themselves from the law. Ultimately, both are instances of the same long-term consequence of openness.

Openness creates accountability. The things we do in the dark come to light. Some of these are thought personal, some are thought shameful, some are illegal. The possibility of secrets - and any benefits of secrets - disappears. In general (and of course there are many exceptions) this helps the disenfranchised, and harms the wealthy and powerful, mostly (to my mind) because people become wealthy and powerful by doing something shady. As Cecília Oliveira says, often "the only way to make this situation better was to make our work open and free and easy to access for everyone."

“Better Sharing, Brighter Future means continuing Jobs’s 'bicycle of the mind' dream with modern IoT general purpose machines like Raspberry Pi… so we can unleash the latent power of humanity and innovate ourselves out of this fossil-fuel-driven climate crisis. --  Kyle Smith

The idea of the 'bicycle of the mind' is that the tool, whatever it is, greatly augments our capacity and efficiency, the way a bicycle takes our very average mobility and greatly leverages it. Steve Jobs, of course, was no fan of openness, and was speaking of the computer as such a tool. But the argument here is the same.

Openness augments human capacities. It augments them on an individual and especially on a social level. That's what motivates Kyle Smith to suggest that openness could help with social issues such as environmental degradation. Quite so, it could. But it could also help us work together to demand more highways, bigger cars, and jet engines, as it has in the past. Openness would mean that anyone could learn how to construct an atomic bomb or a nerve agent, skills that today are reserved for only the rich and powerful. At the same time - and I think this is the point of Kyle Smith's argument - there are some serious social problems - like fixing the environment, ending war, establishing democracy - that we are not going to solve without openness. 

Better sharing for a brighter future means that the world is wrapped in a living connective tissue of shared knowledge, culture, and insights that spread joy and alleviate suffering. -- Molly Van Houweling

At first glance this quote seems to reflect the collectiveness suggested by Biyanto Rebin, but I think it could be understood in a deeper sense. There is to be sure a strong analogy to be drawn between how connective tissue works (say, in our brains) and how connected people work (say, in a society). But the neurons in our brains do not share 'knowledge', except in a trivial sense. They share signals one to the other, and the sharing of these signals, taken together, results in the emergent knowledge of the brain as a whole. No single neuron knows that Paris is the capital of France, but the interconnected set of ten billion neurons does.

Openness is connective. It does for society what connective neural tissues do for the human; it helps all of us together be able to know things that no individual would or could on their own. These things - and I would include the totality of language, science and culture, among the rest - may spread joy and ease suffering, just as the living body makes the life of a neuron possible, though in certain respects, the individual neuron is on its own, even if it is interconnected with the rest of the self. But the important point here is that without openness, without the possibility of emergent connective knowledge, our capacity as a society is limited to what one person can know, and this is not nearly sufficient.

Blessed is the hand that gives. -- Liz Lenjo

The language suggests a parallel between openness and religion in the sense that the reward of heaven will follow the righteous. 'Blessed are the peacemakers', says the phrase, "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven," as though the peace itself were not sufficient reward for making peace. Liz Lenjo says much the same about being generous with our creations and thereby  supporting society. "These efforts seldom go unnoticed or unappreciated." This may be true; it is often the case. But is faith real when the only reason for it is the hope for a reward in heaven?

Openness is externally directed. It is focused on others, both in what we share and what is shared with us. Just as a focus on personal benefit undermines a genuine faith in religion, so also a focus on personal benefit undermines a philosophy of openness. We can't be open just for our own benefit, or even with the expectation that we will benefit. That's now how it works. As soon as we start clinging, we lose hold of the object, whatever it is.



  1. I would add one more (at least) significant benefit of openness and it comes from an engineering perspective. Openness is more efficient than not open. Fewer or no obstacles for obtaining permissions, paywalls, passwords, etc., make it easier to engineer new and interesting solutions to our personal and societal problems. I often stress this lowered "friction on innovation" to law professors so that they realize that the "free beer" is nice, but the "free/libre" is the more important point. Open as executables or PDFs is less open than open as in source code or original word processing formats and all the gory metadata.

    I hardly see this point made and yet I think it's vital.

    John Mayer


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