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The Longest Now

The Open Society : Myth or Catastrophic Novelty?
Saturday December 31st 2005, 4:06 am
Filed under: metrics

Earlier today, Jay-Zed pointed out the humor in juxtaposing fears of a Closed Web and resulting closed society, with the dramatic changes in openness, penetration, and reusability of information and tools over the past decade.  He posited that the existence of certain types of platforms
— for instance, inverted-hourglass networks and PC architectures —
was a specially enabling design decision, which was somewhat arbitrary
and potentially outmoded.  The implication was that without these
platforms, said dramatic changes would have been far less dramatic.

I also enjoy the juxtaposition of the recent explosive openness
with current fears about open channels of communication being closed
off; and do at times find myself laughing at over-pessimistic
statements about the world today.  On the other hand, I don’t
think that focusing on architectures, or on historical platform
choices, is very relevant to the changes we have seen.  A firmer
association can be found between penetration and reuse, and the
availability of ever-better toolchains and factories for mass

A methodical Gutenberg was not the unilateral harbinger of
the modern newspaper; that took many revolutions in pulp-processing and
printing-press design.  Today’s cheap, colorful paper production
is the result of tens of thousands of excellent, focused
innovations.  Likewise, ENIAC was not the harbinger of Ruby on
Rails (or any other modern library that allows someone with basic
programming skills to leverage 10 hours of familiarization into
a fully-customized and appealing application) — that took many
revolutions in software abstraction and philosophy…  nor were
DARPANet and IBM and Microsoft the natural father, mother, and holy concubine
of the modern “all-purpose computer”; this too was many scores of
years, and thousands of mathematical, engineering, and social
innovations in the making.

It is certainly charming that I can now find out what the Ohio
newspapers and tv stations are printing and showing, by looking online
or flipping through my satellite service.  But all the same, we hardly
live in the ‘most open’ environment our modern world has ever
known.  In many ways, we remain less open and networked than, say,
a cozy, classed Greek city-state, with a shared educational, social, and financial gossip network; shared religious, historical, and cultural anecdotes; and shared metrics
for success, civilization-wide goals, and honour; all far more intimate
than parallels in my country today.  Even the most all-telling of
tell-all [auto]biographies is diluted by this lack of openness.

Let us end on a positive note.  What further expansions in
openness may be expected or hoped for in the coming decades? 

  • An improvement in open sharing and classification of ideas,
    so that a good idea in one place is recognized and taken up in many
    others.  Great window-hinge, washing-machine, hobbyist and diaper
    designs should traverse the oceans; great experimental designs the
    fields; &c.
  • A new consciousness of making information public;
    people actively choosing every day to free and share their
    observations, discoveries, thoughts, and analyses — rather than only
    on special occasions.  This consciousness filtered out into
    processes, organizations, and governments.
  • A renaissance in the libraries of methods
    available to access information — one’s own, that of one’s family,
    that of one’s community and office, that of the world at large. 
    This is not dependent on a simple ‘application layer’ provided by a few
    organizations; any more than the question of “where can I find a copy of Anna Karenina” depends on the ‘layer’ of friends’ shelves, bookstores, libraries and online book-sellers I have access to.
  • … add your own!  good comments will be added to this list.
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