Bryan Behrenshausen's public notebook. Updated irregularly.

Some open truisms

At Duke University this fall, I taught a course I named “Foundations of an Open Source World.” That title is something of a misnomer given the themes I tried to stress during every class meeting. “Open” is a complex phenomenon—something with symbolic and material dimensions that have real effects on the way people live their lives—but even more important is the understanding that “open” is always shifting, fraught with tensions and contradictions that keep reshaping it. “Open,” in other words, is always on the move, with no fixed or immutable essence, nothing “eternal” about it (though advocates of “correct” or “true” openness always attempt such “fixings” and short-term stabalizations for tactical purposes).

How, then, can we begin thinking through the foundations of this thing that’s never fixed or settled?

My closing-day lecture attempted to answer this question with four “open truisms,” which I’ll reproduce here as fodder for future writing.

1. “Open” is more than a software development methodology.

This observation is by now rather trite, but it bears repeating (else whatever may follow becomes moot). Despite what particular adherents tend to stress, “open” pertains to much more than a single domain or pursuit. It’s an ethos, an ethic—a collection of values and principles.

Certainly, at a particular moment in time (a particular point in history I outlined during our first two weeks of the course), software development crystallized this ethos in a specific and important way. But nearly all the guiding themes and ideas that occupied our attention throughout the term did not originate with software development, and they continue beyond it, out into wider social formations. Intersection and articulation with software development practices propelled and pushed them in new directions or new ways, to be sure, but open “spills over” into additional domains, and anyone simply attending to software development isn’t getting the full story about how or why this is the case.

2. “Open” does not mean “formless” or “boundless.”

“Becoming open” or “opening up” or “going open”—choose your verb form here—is not simply a matter of removing barriers and constraints, of obliterating rules. “Open” isn’t formless chaos; it requires myriad rules and protocols—its own architectures, without which it just wouldn’t exist (at least, not in the way it otherwise does). “Open,” this is to say, requires persistent, ongoing work—the work of installing or instantiating it, the work policing it and maintaining it, the work of translating it into new contexts. In this sense, it’s much less an end state than we like to pretend.

All that work is so very critical because it is through the work of “doing open” that open continues to exist. Without that work, without those practices and activities, it just wouldn’t be a thing. “Open” is precisely a specific set of connections between people, ideas, and material artifacts. (Those connections are always changing, which is why “open”—the product of those very connections and nothing more—is always changing.)

3. “Open” is not a social, cultural, political, or economic panacea.

“Add open and stir” approaches to explaining “open’s” supposed utility remain popular. They hinge on the notion that “open” is a universal answer to any problem we present to it. “Open” is indeed a way (a style, a manner) of responding to circumstances (like I said in my explanation of the first open truism, it’s a spirit, a set of values that in-forms actions). But just as the identity or definition of “open” is never guaranteed, so too does “open” itself never guarantee anything.

Making something “open” doesn’t immediately or automatically make it more equitable, more effective, more innovative. “Open” can be an answer to a problem, but it’s also often it’s own problem.

4. “Open” is never disinterested and always contested.

“Open” always operates in someone’s interest. Just as important as the question “Is it open?” is the question “For whom is it open?” or “Open for what?

Calling “open” a-political is a mistake. It’s transpolitical. People see in it what they want (need) to see in it; they glimpse in it answers to all kinds of problems (hence the universalizing tendency that motivates the third open truism). Various actors with competing agendas will frequently take divergent approaches to tackling a problem—and each claim they’re taking the “open approach” to doing so. Those divergences and disparities and what make “open” so interesting. It’s always a site of struggle, an opening onto some kind of contentious field, not really a final answer or response.

So anyone interested in “open” should always be asking: What’s the goal or point of being “open” in this particular instance (because, as we’ve already seen, “open” is not an end in itself)? In what ways and toward what ends do “open” and “openness” get picked up, deployed, utilized by various actors (individuals and institutions) with seemingly incommensurable agendas and intentions?

Every such deployment is a mechanism of power, each an attempt to influence what’s possible. And each is constantly working in the interest of some and not others. Think of compulsory openness—demands for transparency mandated asymmetrically, demands for additional (frequently uncompensated) labor in the name of something like “community” or “meritocracy.” Then ask again: “Open for whom?”

Perhaps those four truisms are more like four provocations. But they help me, at least, frame a method for thinking about “open” in context—a way of remaining open, as it were, to additional possibilities.

# December 30, 2017