We Underestimate The Benefits And Overestimate The Dangers Of Openness

from the a-lesson-to-remember dept

I'm in the middle of reading James Boyle's excellent new book, The Public Domain, which I'll write more about next year. In the meantime, he's got a new column up at the Financial Times (which was sent to us by Jon) where he's channeling a bit of Jonathan Zittrain's techno-pessimism about how we may be heading towards a more closed and controlled internet. While I think the fear is a bit overblown, he does make a very important point, first highlighting how, if given the chance to start anew and create the World Wide Web a second time, many people would balk at the openness, pointing out all sorts of problems with it, and all sorts of dangers that it would enable. Yet, very few people would recognize the eventual impact it would have or the overall benefits it would create. As Boyle says:
We have a bias, a cognitive filter, that causes us to undersestimate the benefits and overestimate the dangers of openness -- call it cultural agoraphobia.
I think this is absolutely true, but then I disagree with Boyle (and Zittrain) on the idea that anyone is able to stuff that openness back in a box once it's out there. It's not as easy to change those core principles as some fear. Once people have a taste for what that openness allows, stuffing it back into a box is very difficult. Yes, it's important to remain vigilant, and yes, people will always attempt to shut off that openness, citing all sorts of "dangers" and "bad things" that the openness allows. But, the overall benefits of the openness are recognized by many, many people -- and the great thing about openness is that you really only need a small number of people who recognize its benefits to allow it to flourish.

Closed systems tend to look more elegant at first -- and often they are much more elegant at first. But open systems adapt, change and grow at a much faster rate, and almost always overtake closed systems, over time. And, once they overtake the closed systems, almost nothing will allow them to go back. Even if it were possible to turn an open system like the web into a closed system, openness would almost surely sneak out again, via a new method by folks who recognized how dumb it was to close off that open system.
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Filed Under: james boyle, openness, techno-pessimism


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  • identicon
    Erik, 24 Dec 2008 @ 7:12pm

    In my opinion we already have an example of a closed system in the mobile phone network of recent years. Now as technology advances we're getting more examples of slightly open (iphone) and very open (android) systems.

    I think consumers will graduate to the more open, flexible options as they become more prevalent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Brad, 24 Dec 2008 @ 11:12pm

      Re:

      Wait...what? You consider the iPhone even slightly open?

      For the last 5 years, I've owned Windows Mobile devices. Those are OPEN devices. No one says what you can or can't do with them, carriers have even given up on trying to lock them down. The same goes for Palm (though the SDK was never as complete) and Symbian.

      The iPhone represents a huge step backwards in phone openness. I don't expect every company to turn over the keys to the kingdom, the way Android has (though I sure would like it), but c'mon, Apple's level of "open" is WAY behind any smartphone OS that came before it. Just because you can install applications that have been blessed by the cellphone manufacturer instead of the carrier doesn't mean it's open.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Matt (profile), 24 Dec 2008 @ 7:53pm

    the world

    we live in a world where roughly 9 out of 10 people are completely ignorant and fearful of change. People are murdered, wars are fought, logical morality is bent all in the name of religion, or ignorance, or oftentimes merely due to it being passed down in a family. For the longest times people have and always will be violently opposed to change in all forms.

    Openness is just like the antithesis of such a concept. It takes a lot for people to be willing to change and the only way it can be done is time, and with the help of others. Thus, it's more a philosophical thing than it appears , Mike.

    Take away groupthink, the kind of brainwashing that scientology and other hate groups bring, and you would break that reluctance to openness. However, even modern psychology doesn't have a way to break cult-think. It just takes time for people to use the logic and question what they are doing...many people never occur/bother to ask.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael Hickins, 27 Dec 2008 @ 3:36pm

      Re: the world

      9 out of 10 people, huh? Are those the same 9 out of 10 people who voted for a guy named Barack Obama because they were afraid of change? Matt, your argument loses a lot of steam because it's predicated on an unprovable and probably false premise.
      If you think about it, the world as brutal as it is today, is far less brutal than it was 500 years ago.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Dec 2008 @ 9:21pm

        Re: Re: the world

        Obama might have ran on the message of change, but his concept of change has little magnitude (most of the policies are going to remain same, same people etc).

        I don't know what is your concept of "world" is (for most americans it is only america). The world is not less cruel than it was 1000 years ago (100 also). We have fought two world war+millions of people killed in russia, china, africa..... I dont think we are far less brutal. Even in advanced societies like US the physical pain has been replaced by psycological pains and compulsions.

        Even in today's world very crude concepts like religion and socialism can have a stabilizing effects on many societies.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      oldtroll, 28 Dec 2008 @ 8:32am

      Re: the world

      As a species, most will not change, until the pain of change becomes less than the pain of remaining the same.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Dec 2008 @ 10:00pm

    :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dromo, 25 Dec 2008 @ 2:54am

    openness

    Itunes as opposed to drm less mp3's . Itunes wins the first and second round . But becomes gloriously outmoded by openness

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Dec 2008 @ 7:17am

    While not relevant to me intent of the article, it did make me smile that "Technology Year Zero" for the start of creating an "internet" was chosen as 1991.

    Personally, I would have chosen a much earlier date, in the neighborhood of the late 50's to the early 60's, with the tech team sitting down in his imaginary room about the late 60's. Given all the slamming done against the government for hindering to varying degrees innovation, I do wonder if the majority of persons using this remarkable technological achievement are aware that it had its genesis under the auspices of DARPA?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike (profile), 25 Dec 2008 @ 12:12pm

      Re:

      While not relevant to me intent of the article, it did make me smile that "Technology Year Zero" for the start of creating an "internet" was chosen as 1991.

      I think it's pretty clear that he means the WWW, not the internet.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Lawrence D'Oliveiro, 25 Dec 2008 @ 12:56pm

        Re: Technology Year Zero

        Mike wrote:

        While not relevant to me intent of the article, it did make me smile that "Technology Year Zero" for the start of creating an "internet" was chosen as 1991.

        I think it's pretty clear that he means the WWW, not the internet.

        In that case, I would choose 1946, the year of publication of Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think", in which he described the Memex.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Dec 2008 @ 1:25pm

        Re: Re:

        Perhaps it is a matter of definition, but I have always viewed the "internet" as the "hardware", and the "WWW" as the "software" to enable use of the "hardware". This is manifestly a simplistic distinction, but it does help me when trying to explain to others the difference between the terms "internet" and "WWW".

        When the "internet" was first created under a cooperative arrangement between DARPA and a few universities, obviously protocols were established and used to enable file transfers. Since then, of course, numerous other protocols have been developed to take advantage of the "hardware's" vast capabilities. If memory serves me, TCP/IP, for example, derived from work at Xerox's PARC facility in Palo Alto.

        One notable aspect of the fact the work was done under the auspices of the DOD is that neither the DOD nor the universities sought to secure patent protection. I do not believe this was a deliberate decision, but more likely the fact that the DOD and the universities were not particularly involved in patenting since such law was largely foreign to both. I can only wonder what would have been the result had Bayh-Dole been in place back then.

        Merely as an aside, had the system been developed under the auspices of either NASA or the DOE, you can bet your bottom dollar that it would have been patented...and we would all be the lesser for such shortsightedness (Yes, even I recognize that protecting new technology can be in many instances absolutely the worst thing you can do.).

        I did read the referenced article and obviously failed to note the distiction you point out. When I went back to look at it again the site wanted me to register, but I decided not to do so at this time. Perhaps later.

        BTW, I read The Public Domain when it first came out. It will be interesting to see your take on it. As a tidbit of food for thought, you will note that he does not deny the usefulness of patent and copyright law. He does, however, express concern about his belief that the law has over time strayed from its original reason for being, a belief that I likewise share. His strongest beliefs are directed to copyright law, and with good reason. With some noteable exceptions patent law has remained relatively true to its roots. In stark contrast, copyright law has strayed to the point that it bears virtually no resemblance to what was originally conceived as its overarching purpose. Sadly, much of its change in course is attributable to the influence of copyright law in Europe, and particularly French law.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 26 Dec 2008 @ 5:23pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Perhaps it is a matter of definition, but I have always viewed the "internet" as the "hardware", and the "WWW" as the "software" to enable use of the "hardware".
          Not really. The Internet is actually hardware agnostic. It, the Internet, is built on communications protocols and any hardware that can communicate using those protocols can carry Internet traffic.
          One notable aspect of the fact the work was done under the auspices of the DOD is that neither the DOD nor the universities sought to secure patent protection. I do not believe this was a deliberate decision, but more likely the fact that the DOD and the universities were not particularly involved in patenting since such law was largely foreign to both.
          Actually, "such law was largely foreign to both" because it did not exist back then and it was not possible to patent things such as software, algorithms, and protocols. I imagine things would be different today and it would not be possible to build something like the Internet. It kind of makes you wonder how many more things like the Internet patents are preventing today, doesn't it?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Dec 2008 @ 7:22am

    "relevant to me" should be "relevant to the"

    P.S. - To Mr. Masnick and the techdirt crew, my sincere wishes that each of you have a wonderful holiday season.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Dec 2008 @ 11:56am

    "Once people have a taste for what that openness allows, stuffing it back into a box is very difficult."

    You don't quote any facts to support this assertion - not surprising as the facts disagree : almost no one has an open internet connection anymore, they are almost all profiled and shaped. There are plenty of other examples - it's pretty hard to come up with an example which even superficially supports the Masnick claim.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike (profile), 25 Dec 2008 @ 12:06pm

      Re:

      You don't quote any facts to support this assertion - not surprising as the facts disagree : almost no one has an open internet connection anymore, they are almost all profiled and shaped.

      Really? Can you actually support that statement? Because it's simply not true.

      Even in the *rare* cases where there is traffic shaping going on, there are easy paths around it. And it IS open.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Dec 2008 @ 6:05am

        Re: Re:

        "Even in the *rare* cases where there is traffic shaping going on.."
        If you think it is rare you're not paying attention.

        "...there are easy paths around it..." obviously not true.

        "And it IS open." even techdirt has stories about Chinese firewalls, Australian filters etc, pretending that similar doesn't exist for the USA is just denial.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    gene_cavanaugh, 25 Dec 2008 @ 2:56pm

    Closing the web

    Michael is dead right here; but I think people need to be better educated about the web. Too many people see it as too sophisticated to understand. What we don't understand, we tend to fear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Peter, 26 Dec 2008 @ 1:12am

    Open systems ftw.

    Optimization hinders evolution - Alan Perlis

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      oldtroll, 28 Dec 2008 @ 8:43am

      Re:

      I beg to differ.Optimization of what all we have achieved, IS evolution. There are many paths on the evolutionary road. Some are clear, and some are not. But it is still evolution.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Regan, 26 Dec 2008 @ 1:37am

    Information Will Make You Rich

    Remember when we first launched our spy satellites? Daddy Bush was the head of the CIA, and became rich from his knowledge of where the oil fields were, and which company owned the drilling rights to those field, and consequentially who to strike deals with for drilling equipment and investment opportunities.

    Same thing with the internet. Whoever controls our governmental cyberspace monitoring will have access to EVERYTHING. What did I say? EVERYTHING. Think about it: ALL INFORMATION.

    What does that mean? That means that whomever has access to this information, will know who will be awarded that next contract to supply our troops during the next war, and what to bid at that auction and which candidate can be blackmailed easily.

    How much is it worth to have THAT job? And how much can you and your buddies make from the residual benefits of the knowledge you will be accumulating?

    Ask yourself why a senatorial appointment to a job paying only $150,000 a year is worth $1 million up front to someone. We KNOW that Daddy Bush didn't get rich on his government pay over the years, and neither did his son. How much will the job of overseeing the nation's cyberspace monitoring service pay? And more important, what will it be worth to the lucky person who gets it?

    That is the larger question. Do you think the government will close the door to their opportunity to know EVERYTHING that is going on in EACH BUSINESS and FAMILY transaction?

    No, that door will NEVER close. It is worth too much to the folks who will control the access to the data contained therein.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Dont Believe The Hype, 26 Dec 2008 @ 9:27am

      Re: Information Will Make You Rich

      What a bunch of horse puckey.

      Daddy Bush did not "become rich", though his alter ego across the aisle, Al Gore Sr, certainly did.

      To date, W has more wealth than his father, and that's after sinking a few companies along the way.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    entropyomega, 26 Dec 2008 @ 9:20am

    Trial

    Looking at the late late show, through a semi-precious stone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Terry Harmer, 27 Dec 2008 @ 11:16am

    Openess

    I think that China, with the help of Microsoft, Google, et. al. has managed to stuff the openess genie back into the bottle of repression.
    -t

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alpha Computer, 27 Dec 2008 @ 1:20pm

    How It Has Changed

    What started off as a simple service has become huge. Its original developers probably would not have guessed that it would become what it is today. Likewise us, we probably will not recognize it as it continues to develop.

    As far as trying to contain the Internet, you would have a better chance of stopping a leak in a dam with chewing gum. Once we have tasted the good stuff, we can not go back. The Internet will evolve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Dec 2008 @ 7:44pm

      Re: How It Has Changed

      Once we have tasted the good stuff, we can not go back.
      Unfortunately, you can go back, even if you don't want to. History is replete with examples of people loosing their freedoms to repressive regimes. All it takes is a lack of vigilance and a misguided belief that it couldn't happen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    oldtroll, 28 Dec 2008 @ 8:49am

    Re:

    I might be mistaken, but I thought that this was a discussion forum. Not a sales forum.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    oldtroll, 28 Dec 2008 @ 8:54am

    evolution

    Oops: There it is. As we can see, even the discussions on here are evolving.. he he.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Dec 2008 @ 11:20am

    open eh?

    Why hasnt linux killed windows? Linux is open and painful, windows is closed and convenient. Same goes for iPhone vs gPhone etc..

    All the dumb users (who make up 90% of the users) prefer convenience, regardless whether it is open or not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Dec 2008 @ 11:40am

    For an example of a "closed system" look at Apple.

    For an example of an open system look at x86 based PC's.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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