Can open stop the future?

wikipedia_politics_opennessLast week Catherine Cronin brought Alice Marwick’s review of Nathaniel Tkacz’s Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, to my attention and it’s left me with a lot of food for thought.  I haven’t had a chance to read Tkacz’s book yet but there are a couple points that I’d like to pick up on from the review, and one in particular that relates to the post I wrote recently on Jisc’s announcement that it intended to “retire” Jorum and replace it with a new “App and Content store” : Retire and Refresh: Jisc, Jorum and Open Education.

I tend to shy away from socio-political discussions about the nature of openness as I find that they often become very circular, and very contentious, very quickly.  I do agree with Tkacz and Marwick that openness is inherently political but I certainly don’t believe that openness is intrinsically neoliberal. To my mind this analysis betrays a rather US centric view of the open world and fails to take into consideration many other global expressions of openness.

If I’m interpreting Marwick correctly, Tkacz also seems to be arguing that openness must necessarily be non-hierarchical, which is an interesting perspective but not one that I wholly buy into.  While I think we need to be aware of the dangers of replicating existing hierarchical power structures in open environments, I think it’s somewhat idealistic to expect open initiatives to flourish without any power structures at all. So yes, there are hierarchical power structures inherent in Wikipedia, but I think there are many more egregious examples of openwashing out there.

The point that really struck me in Marwick’s review was the reference to Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 book The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It  in which the author charts the evolution from generative to tethered devices.

The Future of the Internet“The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules (either coded for a particular operating system, or respecting the protocols of the Internet). Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.”

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It
Jonathan Zittrain

Marwick elaborates on the this generative – tethered dichotomy and situates it in our current technology context.

“Those in the former (generative) group allow under-the-hood tinkering, or simply messing with code, are championed by the maker movement, and run on free and open-source software. Tethered devices, on the other hand, are governed by app stores and regulated by mobile carriers: this is the iPhone model….The most successful apps of today, from Uber to Airbnb to Snapchat, are participatory and open only in the sense that anyone is free to use them and generate revenue for their owners.

Most of these apps use proprietary formats, don’t play well with others, make it difficult for users to port their content from one to another, and are resolutely closed-source.”

Open Markets, Open Projects: Wikipedia and the politics of openness
Alice E. Marwick

Now, I’m not sufficiently familiar with Zittrain’s work to know if his thinking is still considered to be current and relevant, but his warnings about a future of closed technologies tethered to a network of control, rather amplified the alarm bells that have been ringing in my head since Jisc announced the creation of their App and Content store.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the idea of an App Store sits very uneasily with my conception of open education.  Also I can’t help wondering what role, if any, open standards will play in the development of the new app store to prevent lock-in to proprietary applications and formats.

Zittrain suggested that developing community ethos is one way to “stop the future” and counter technology lockdown.

“A lockdown on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field. Stopping this future depends on some wisely developed and implemented locks, along with new technologies and a community ethos that secures the keys to those locks among groups with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, rather than in the hands of a single gatekeeping entity, whether public or private.”

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It
Jonathan Zittrain

I absolutely agree that when it comes to the development of education content and technologies we need a community ethos with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, but to my mind it’s increased openness, rather than more locks and keys that will provide this safeguard.  In the past Jisc played an important public role by fostering communities of practice, supporting the development of innovative open technologies and sharing common practice and I sincerely hope that, rather than becoming a single gatekeeper to the community’s education content and applications, it will continue to maintain this invaluable sense of public purpose.

17 thoughts on “Can open stop the future?

  1. If you haven’t read Zittrain, I highly recommend it as still relevant. A point I think he’d agree with (and not having read Tkacz’s book but just the review, think he needs to acknowledge in the straw man framing of openness) is that proponents of “open” are in my experience not arguing for it as THE panacea; it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for many of the results people are hoping for (one of which Zittrain states “a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field.”). As many of us have tried to explain, “open” and “welcoming” are not the same, nor are “open” and “anarchic.” Figruing out the blend and balance is one of the

    I also don’t think you’d find fundamental disagreement with Zittrain about “locks and keys” – I think he’s arguing that to the extent to which these are necessary, that they be held within civic society and other entities that have broader mandates and sensibilities that for-profit corporations.

    • Isn’t openness anarchic by default?
      Blackstone’s surrender of liberty as irrelevant if i can take it all and leave

      • Not sure I agree that openness is anarchic by default. I think it can be, btu I also think that it’s very easy for existing power structures to replicate themselves in open spaces.

        Re Blackstone’s surrender of liberty, I think I’d have to do your Common Law MOOC before I can comment :}

    • Hi Scott, always good to hear your thoughts about slippier aspects of openness! It sounds like I should definitely read Zittrain, well at least read beyond the introduction which I skimmed yesterday to pull out the quotes above. I certainly agree that where locks and keys are necessary, they should be in the hands of civic entities rather than for-profit corporations, however I think part of the problem we’re currently facing is that many civic entities, particularly in the higher education sector, are increasingly operating like for-profit corporations. The boundaries between commercial and non-commercial activities are breaking down which makes it a very contested space.

      • But i think this is the same deal. Openness is eulogised as X, Y and Z, and where is the evidence, or argument it ever was that? It makes for a rallying call, but as covered in the other comment, it then assumes we’re a big homogeneous blog.

        To use the current phrasing, you’d want a safe space, not an open space

  2. Thanks for this interesting post Lorna. Like you, I have only read a review of Tkacz’s book and I do want to read it:)
    My own feeling is that when we valorise open and make too many expectations of it as a thing, we might just be talking about it and thinking about it in unhelpful ways.
    I love the possibilities of OERs and my Twitter network but also have many reservations about untrammelled and idealised openness. With others, I offered/participated in an ALT symposium in 2011 that prompted a useful discussion.
    This year there has been a very interesting Special Issue in Learning, Media and Technology – and this open access paper from it gives a very interesting account of the inscrutability of openness
    For me, I think it’s very useful to acknowledge the history of openness (what about Open Learning/ Active Learning that preceded WWW?) and its partialness even on an open web – open access pubs have private communication behind them – and open dialogue has back channels. The private communications and back channels are not intrinsically bad – they are just different channels from open. I think we need to explore what works well and less well in the communications spread across these different channels and for me, valorising open stands in the way of understanding what is happening.
    Another interesting ref (though expensive) is Ben Light’s theory of disconnective practice that chimes with Edwards in recognising that opening and closing are interconnected.
    Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with social networking sites. doi:10.1057/9781137022479

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and incisive comment Frances. I think you’re absolutely right, we need to be wary of idealising openness. We also need to be aware that openness doesn’t exist in a vacuum and never will, it will always be situated alongside more or less closed spaces; your example of open dialogue with back channels is a perfect case in point.

    • That’s good! Given that you have vastly more experience of the application development space that I do, I wondered if this distinction would make sense to you. Is this a distinction that is familiar in the OSS domain?

      • Actually no, not really. Its a separate quality from the things covered by the Free Software Definition and OSI-approved licenses. Some software is generative in the sense that it provides building blocks to create new software or it can be readily applied to different kinds of solutions from those envisaged by its original authors. Some software is tethered in the sense that, while you can fork the code, its bound to the expertise of its original creators and the problem they were trying to solve, or is bound tightly to another existing solution or platform. (The licensing helps in that there’s nothing stopping anyone un-tethering the code, but there may be little point in doing so)

      • Thanks Scott, that’s an interesting distinction. I’d need to think about it a bit more but it sounds like the generative / tethered distinction is orthogonal to the Free Software Definition. (I here by award myself the Claude Ostyn Memorial Prize – huzzah!)

  3. I’ve met him, well been interviewed by him and wouldn’t have taken the job.

    Most academic critiques I’ve seen of open can basically be boiled down to ‘HE got issues and open ain’t going to solve them’ or Downes/Wiley/UNESCO said this so it must be true of all of us. Some of the research is so bad i think i’d need a million rabbit scalps to generate the bunny ears needed for the hand gesture to accompany me saying research. I read onw recently which counted noocs as oers. And they call that research……

    Neoliberalism is basically a dog whistle

    • Can’t disagree there Pat. A lot of what passes for research in this space is a bit suspect to say the least. I tend not to read many published works about openness as I find a lot of them very frustrating. Generally I prefer to engage with discussions on blogs, mailing lists and twitter, though I realise there is a risk of the echo chamber effect.

      You’re right about open=neoliberal being a dog whistle, but that’s not going to stop me from calling it nonsense 🙂 Woof!

  4. Only one day late to the party, Lorna 🙂 – great blog post! Tkacz, Marwick and Zittrain certainly provide some excellent fodder for digging into openness. I’ve read part of the Tkacz book (too many books on the go here!) and have found it thought-provoking so far. Like you, I find the generative/tethered concept useful. To me it’s reminiscent of some of the Reclaim/LMS comparisons (debates). Of course, while it’s useful to define the two poles, it’s essential to move beyond those binaries. I see that both you and Frances discussed just this in the comments above. Frances and I have shared some thoughts on the Edwards (2015) paper in our preparations, with a few others, for a seminar for next year’s Networked Learning Conference. I also referenced Edwards in my session at the OER conference this year ( Edwards echoes Tkacz’s point exactly when he highlights the interplay of openness and closed-ness: “…all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness and it is only through certain closings that certain openings become possible and vice versa… An important question therefore becomes not simply whether education is more or less open, but what forms of openness are worthwhile and for whom; openness alone is not an educational virtue.”

    In my reading of Tkacz I couldn’t find mention of Adrianne Wadewitz (though I must check again). Wadewitz was a trailblazer in identifying and addressing gender bias in Wikipedia. I became aware of her work her just a few months before her sudden death last year, but as a feminist and experienced Wikipedia editor, she contributed enormously to raising awareness of gender and the politics of openness (e.g. This wider interplay of gender, power & knowledge also has been an important strand of the conversations in and around FedWiki — as Frances can attest, and may like to say more about.

    It’s late, Lorna… I hope these thoughts make some sense. I’ve been deeply engaged in interviews and analysis for my own research study these past few weeks — speaking with HE educators about their research, learning & teaching practices, and what motivates their personal choices re: openness. I hope Pat won’t need those bunny ears when I get around to sharing my results 🙂

    • Many thanks for your comments Catherine. Well worth the wait! I really like that passage from Edwards, that makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder if failure to really account for “what forms of openness are worthwhile and for whom” partially accounts for the difficulties we have in trying to define and communicate the benefits and drawbacks of openness?

      The issue of gender bias in Wikipedia is an interesting topic. I know it is very much a reality but my own local and personal experience has been very positive. There is a very active and engaging community of wikimedians in Scotland and many of them are women. Our two wikimedians in residence at the National Library of Scotland and Museums Galleries Scotland are women, and many of the editathons that have taken place here have focused on women in the sciences, arts,computing, medicine etc. The recent Edinburgh 7 editathon is an excellent case in point:,_Science_and_Scottish_History_editathon_series So, perhaps the key to addressing the wider scale gender bias is to focus at engaging women with Wikipedia at the local level?

      I’ll very much look forward to hearing the outputs of your research. I conducted very similar interviews for some consultancy work earlier in the year, it would be very interesting to compare our findings.

      • Thanks, Lorna 🙂 And I fully agree re: gender and Wikipedia! Indeed, Adrianne Wadewitz was at the forefront of the movement to initiate editathons focused on redressing the under-representation of women (as both Wikipedia editors and subjects). Since here premature death last year, Wadewitz Tribute Editathons are now held in some places… she made a real difference.

        In the wider sense, I look forward to continued conversations re: openness (in all its complexity!) and our respective projects. I’d love to see the work you did earlier this year — is there a link or publication I could access? Many thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s