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Openess and the Oddessey of Knowledge

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Openness means quite a number of things to me.

It means openness to, and availabilitiy for dissent, argument, proof and disproof.

It means open dissemination.

It means freely adaptable.

It means accessible to, and changeable by, influence.

It means available to, and changeable by new ideas, information, experiences or contexts.

It means in the process of decision, and not yet decided.

It means not charged for, and without cost.

It means someone else might be paying.

It means different things, at different times, in different contexts.

But it is always, I think, the openness of Interfaces

The crossroads of cultures

Courtesy of Flickr User Reading Tom http://www.flickr.com/photos/16801915@N06/

Courtesy of Flickr User Reading Tom http://www.flickr.com/photos/16801915@N06/

In Medici Florence, it meant receptivity. Receptivity to the new emigres from the Fall of Byzantium, and the old and new knowledges that travelled with them. The knowledge of Greek, the new translations of old texts, handed down from Greece. The new knowledge of Arabic science that also travelled with them. And that such receptivity meant that Della Mirandolla’s new concept of the human, as overleaping the angels in the hierarchy of things by the force and power of our reason, could sit cheek by jowl at the same dining table with DaVinci, Michaelangelo, and Brunelleschi.

From such openess, and the wealth to indulge it, from the library of Cosimo deMedici, from the seat of Greek he paid for, from the Bishop of Byzantium, and his bags of books and scholarly tongue, from his dining table and those he was patron to, came some of the new knowledge that would infuse a sense of ourselves into a Europe about to be irretrievably altered by the experience. Paid for by the money of merchants and bankers.

Or, in the building of Venice, and the importation of engineers, ideas, art and experience, again from Byzantium, to build domes, and manufacture artefacts whose crafting had been lost for five centuries. This new crossroads created opportunity, curiosity, and interfaces for the spread of new and old ideas. Again, paid for by merchants.

Here then, is the openness of the interface, where world’s that are separate, distinct, though not unrelated, collide, collapse, and ideas exchange across the permeable filters to crosspollinate, take root, and perhaps thrive in new soils more ready to bear the fruit of revolutions.

The enthusiasts, and the culture of enthusiasm.

Courtesy of the Royal Society

Courtesy of the Royal Society

The gentlemen enthusiasts of the Enlightenment, paid for by patrons, or by Royal charter, or by their own moneyed position, and their competition with each other, as individuals, as nations, as imperial competitors, or as inheritors of history, who published and argued back and forth, in a culture where dissent had become more a currency than had been customary. The communal and individual elevation of reason, of experiment, of the availability of truth, of the driving sense of ourselves as capable masters of the world’s mechanics. Here, knowledge becomes open to dissent, enquiry, investigation. Argument becomes the order of things. Necessity and desire, not orthodoxy, become the drivers of the knowledge machine. The world becomes available for description. Dissent, and not dogma, openness, and not orthodoxy, curiosity, and not closedmindedness are the new arbitrers. Here then is the openness of culture, and of methodology.

These enthusiasts, pursuers of the mechanics of things, reframed the conceptualisation of knowledge. Again, paid for by merchants, bankers, and the landed gentry.  Knowledge itself was not always shared, but the world was open to disquisition and experiment in a way that had not been quite so characteristic.

Here, I would argue, enquiry as openness, and dogma and ideology are it’s enemy. To be open to the evidence is to be open to truth. This might indicate that clarity, falsifiability, reason and transparency are the characteristics of openness, and that their opposites are it’s enemies.

Openness as communication.

The library at Alexandria, the printing press, the internet, the postal system, the photocopier and the telephone are all mediums which make knowledge transmissible, reproduceable, capable of dissemination, reproduction and sharing. The exchanged letters of the Enlightenment, across borders and over time are no less a medium for the open exchange of ideas than is the internet. As our capacity to communicate evolves and changes, the pace and abundance might change, but not the basic mechanics. Where, in the 1600’s, I might need to use a cypher to prevent the contents of my letter being intercepted, I now might rely on TOR. The same people, for the same reasons produce the same effects on different technologies. Elizabethan spies intercepting post are not so different from NSA contractors archiving Internet traffic.

The enemies of open communication have always been the same. Thomas More’s interception of letters from seditious religious reformers are, in many ways, not dissimilar from todays omni-interception of data. Treason, sedition, conspiracy, and the threat to securoty played as much a [part in the past as they do today. And the excesses we experience are none so different either, perhaps.

Communication is the medium through which openness expresses itself. The abundance of communication we currently experience is novel, miraculous and a pristine human experience. That said, although communication is the medium for openness, I do not think it is a prime cause. That a medium exists is not sufficient for openness to occur.

Openness as adaptability and distribution

The Open Software movement, commons licensing, peer to peer filesharing, Open education, are all examples of a type of openness, that has a distributed aspect to it. It is to do with the distribution of development and artefact creation, or to do with the distributon of already created artefacts. We work together to make something new, and distribute to whoever wants it. The process, or the product, or both are now open.  Here the enemy may be closed development systems, or proprietary platforms, or a lack of freedom to riff on existing ideas. Anyone can take Linux and fork off with it. Anyone can develop for Android. More or less. Anyone can use a cc licenced image. An Open Education Resource is there to be distributed, and, perhaps, adapted, changed, and redistributed.

We work together to distribute something that already exists, and is actually owned by someone else. So we don’t have to pay for it.

Openness is, always, an experience of something else.

What all these share in common is an interface of curious individuals, across a medium where this curiosity is expressed. The motivations differ – financial gain, imperial advantage, selfish desire for achievement, status or prestige, necessity, opportunity or enthusiastic interest. But that interface, the medium and the motivation of curiosity seem unchanging, and characteristic of all types of openness. People must meet, in some form or another, meaningfully, and form an understanding which is communicated, and which informs and shapes what follows, when that experience is then crystallised into a thought, a word, a deed or a thing. And I think this is the heart of openness. It is an experience, always, of something else.

The price of Openness, picking up the tab.

The development of the internet is, now, characterised by this type of openness. The TCP/IP Protocols that run things are non-proprietary. They are open to adaptation. The infrastructure, now that it’s declassified, is universally open. People are free to implement and adapt. This openess is less straightforward than it might seem.

Where openness had been bankrolled by ,merchants and aristocrats, now, in part, it’s bankrolled by users. Google has right on your content and mines your online existence for data. It trawls youir email and markets at you on the basis of what it reads. Facebook can reproduce your content for it’s own purposes. Globally. For eternity. In whatever way it sees fit. And so can any future partners. Apple track your physical movements and store them. Who we are, where we are, when we are, and what we do is archived, cross referenced, and utilised. Sometimes that is transparent, and we willingly, or from willful igornace, enter into the bargain. And at times we are unaware of the silent partners (hello NSA).

The moral here is that openess must always be paid for, as it requires a medium. Currently, we are the product. The price of the current openess on the internet is our data, our privacy, and our ownership of the things we say, and the things we digitally do. It;s a devils bargain, as what we say and do constitute the majority of who we are. But why worry about that when we have Facebook. The apex of human expression.

And it is always subject to the needs of the authorities who administer it. Tudor spies will open your mail if you are suspected of sedition. GCHQ will open your email, browser history, and chat logs if you are suspected of sedition. Or if the NSA pay them to. (This is not new by the way. The UK’s RIP act has been on the books since the 90’s, and gives all sorts of organistaions access to your data. The pensions regulator, the department of transport, the health and safety executive, the phrmaceutical council, amonst many others can access data…)



  1. Jane says:

    Very comprehensive! I especially like that you emphasize openness as a factor for the cross-pollination of cultures — and the resulting knowledge that was built from so many different sources. It is something that we don’t mention enough.

  2. rireed says:

    Really informative and enjoyable read.

    Like Jane, I really liked the fact you brought up openness as a bridge between cultures. Very often that perspective and many others are overlooked.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Thanks rireed.

      I think openess is often just that, a communication of difference across a gap. a cultural one, historical one, experiential one. The medium may change, but what and how we express across it remains largely unchanged.

  3. It’s the first time I read something so insightful on openness, mostly because your post goes beyond the immediate online environment to venture into a historical perspective. We don’t often think of openness elsewhere than in our Internet era context.

  4. A very insightful post on the openness concept. I liked the paragraph on communication and then later you referenced Facebook as the apex of human expression. Being open and communicating to me does not mean that we should be telling the world what we are doing every moment of everyday.Therefore we must guide ourselves to step over the mundane to find those jewels of inspiration and wisdom that we seek.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi Dawn,

      I’d agree on the point about oversharing. The Facebook as apex thing is quite tongue in cheek. There are many apexes (if that’s possible?) of human communication. Some open, some closed. Some private, some public. Spanning the first words of your child, to a politicians speech that forms a fulcrum for the world to shift on.

      Facebooks specific, and fairly unique capacity – one that it shares with other online platforms, but not with offline ones so much – is it’s ease of use, relative permanence, and ubiquity. We consume the ability to communicate in ways we did not really consume them before…

  5. Very insightful, as always! I really like two points here, especially:

    1. That openness is a matter of experiencing something else. This got me thinking…okay, yes, but always? As a philosopher, I tend to focus in on absolutes like that. So openness is an experience of something else when I share things that others use and I see what new things can be done with them/created from them. Also when I am able to access new things from others that they’ve shared. And when I get information about processes that I didn’t have before b/c someone was open and transparent about them. But what if I just post stuff and nothing happens? is that an experience of openness, and if so, is it of something else? Or if there’s no communication, nothing happening after the sharing, is it not really open? Or perhaps I’m missing your point here? It’s an intriguing one/made me think, which is why I like it so much.

    2. Someone always pays. Yep. Even when I think I’m sharing freely and no one has to pay for what I’m sharing, of course the platform I’m sharing it on is somehow paid for. My Uni pays for the Word Press installment on our servers that I use for my blog. I am paying for Twitter and Google + in the ways you note. I could try using services that don’t collect data, but then it’s harder to share b/c fewer people are using them and so fewer people see what I’m sharing. The public is paying my salary so that I can make things to share. And etc. It’s important to think about who is paying and how, so we can consciously choose whether we want to change that, and how.

    Nice post–thank you.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi Christina,

      thanks for the comment. And for helping run all this. The effort, insight and opportunities are hugely appreciated.

      Absolutes. Tricky things. Looks like I tied myself into one here.

      I think, openess is always an interface, and a communication across that interface. But I don;t think it’s always a function of when we share things, or them being read, utilised, understood or taken advantage of. And I also think that that communication may be intentional, or unintentional

      Let’s tease through a couple of examples ( just realised, my prose probably sounds like I think I’m right, most of the time – I don’t here. I’m fumbling out loud).

      The stealing of the silk process from China. So, China controlled access to the silk rooms, proscribed access to the worms or silkeries for foreigners, and the process and worms were eventually, illegally smuggled out. The Chinese attempt to control the process was closed. Understandably so. The Western attitude to the process was open, agressively so – we want to know, learn, and reproduce the technology for ourselves.

      So, communication here, of a sort, transpires across an interface where only one participant is willing.

      The other sort of openness, where someone shares, and it is taken advantage of, is still openness.It’s a frustrating sort, but the sharer is still open, the content is open, and the inetrface and communication are still open. Communication still occurs, and an interface is still created, even if it’s never fully realised.

      I think, in part, the experience of openness can mean different things, even within the same transaction. And it can also change meaning and emphasis. For example, in meideval alchemy and natural philosophy/mysticism, the translation of the Jewish Zohar had p[rofound influences on it’s development. Qabbalah became central to the European mystical tradition, the Hebrew terms entered the mystical lexicon, and the influence is huge to this day (modern occultists are steeped, consciously and unconsciously in the structures and symbolism). Yet, simultaneously, European Jews were denied access to cities, countires, employmeny, and housing, and Western cultures remained closed to them in almost every single other respect.

      In all these cases, there is an interface, and there is communication, but it’s complicated by the possibilility that it can be intentional, or, to adgree unintentional. It can be one sided, from either side. One partyner can be closed, and the other open, and yet communication occurs, and an interface is opened. It can be partial, and other aspects of the interface can be to do with denying or shutting down communication. There can be instances of profound openness (translating and subsuming a central text, such as the Zohar, completely) that are part of an overall rejection.

      hmmm…getting a little clearer here. Thanks for the prompting…

  6. Yes, this is clearer for me too, now, so thank you! I agree that there is at least an interface and a possible communication. I mean, if I post something and no one ever reads it or uses it or communicates with me about it, then maybe no communication, but perhaps still openness?

    Good points about communication and openness being intentional or not, willing or not. But there is still opening in some way. That makes sense. Not always the kind of open that is praised by proponents of openness, but this is an interesting way to try to come up with a definition that would cover all sorts of openness. I think I like it. At least, I can’t think of any clear objections at the moment, other than what I’ve already raised and you’ve responded to.

    • Looking back at the example of ‘preaching in the digital desert’ – when you post something and nobody cares to respond – it’s not necessarily a failure of openness.

      The results might not bounce back at you but it doesn’t mean that your sharing has had no impact. Someone could have read your post and been inspired to share something of their own without linking back to you. Maybe someone read your blog and talked about your idea offline with others who will probably never hear of you but now started reflecting on that idea. The combinations are endless and yet in most cases you’ll never know what happened or get to participate in those conversations triggered by your post.

      So in this sense, I agree with Keith that the experience might be frustrating for the sharer but it is still openness.

      • wiltwhatman says:

        I think that’s a good way of thinking about it.

        I was also trying (not very clearly) to get to the idea that, in posting, your motivation is one of openness, and, although that may not be realised by others taking advantage, your post itslef has been shaped by openness – the wording, the shifts in emphasis, the work you put in, the resources you select, and all that’s implied byb the act of posting – processing, organising and editing your thoughts, changing your perspective as a result, engaging more meaningfully with the topic….

        It’s still a possibly shaping influence, on you, the poster, even if not on the people you hoped to share with.

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