Openness, Radicalism, and Tolerance

The world is increasingly divided. The world is increasingly bitterly divided. Of all the things I worry about late at night, lying in bed unable to sleep, the almost absolute absence of civility in our nation’s political discourse has loomed largest lately. Everyone on the left seems to think everyone on the right is a moron. Everyone on the right seems to think everyone on the left is a moron. The louder you scream and the meaner the things you say, the greater standing you seem to have in your political group. The recent round of vilifications of “Republicans in Name Only” and “Democrats in Name Only” provides a preview of what may soon come – an America where radicalism (i.e., actions and words showing your allegiance to either the radical right or the radical left) becomes the primary political currency. There is precious little room left for those in the center who put pragmatics before ideology and would rather discuss and understand than accuse and belittle.

(It sort of reminds me of Lady Gaga, and the way that the music industry has become a contest to see who can pair the most outrageously pornographic music videos with the most yawningly mediocre music. There’s precious little room left in that industry for talented people who just want to make great music but aren’t willing to take their clothes off while doing it. But I digress.)

In my humble opinion, the “open” space should be the world’s foremost exemplary showcase of tolerance. We should be models of “open”-mindedness. And we should be the most open-minded in our thinking about openness itself!

The idea advocated by groups like the Open Knowledge Definition or the Free Cultural Works crowd that there should be a litmus test for openness really bothers me. Deeply bothers me. What is the point of crying from the rooftops that some content is “Open in Name Only?” Why must we, the “open” folks, be in the business of ideological purging like the politicians? If someone has gone out of their way to waive some of the rights guaranteed them under the law so that they can share their creative works – even if that action is to apply a relatively restrictive CC BY-NC-ND to their content – why aren’t we praising that? Why aren’t we encouraging and cultivating and nurturing that? Why are we instead decreeing from a pretended throne on high, “Your licensing decision has been weighed in the balance, and has been found wanting. You are not deemed worthy.” Why the condescension? Why the closed-mindedness? Why the race to create machinery like definitions that give us the self-assumed authority to tell someone their sharing isn’t good enough?

Why isn’t the open crowd more open-minded?

And I have to ask… Has their really not been any useful intellectual advancement in this field since Richard Stallman enumerated the four freedoms (1986) and Bruce Perens laid out the Debian Free Software Guidelines (1997)? I think the last decade has shown that content is different from software in meaningful ways. (For example, there are no objective tests to tell whether or not modifications of a still image, video, piece of music, or essay have improved that creative work.) Clinging to statements of principle laid down for software (apples) to help us think about all other creative works (oranges, bananas, kiwis, etc.) ten or twenty years later just doesn’t make sense to me. By slightly reworking the four freedoms or the DFSG, statements like “Freedom Defined” and the “Open Knowledge Definition” seem both (1) unwilling to acknowledge the important differences between software and other creative works and (2) all too anxious to find ways to exclude people from the club and tell them they’re not good enough.

The original OpenContent License (1998) was a simple modification of the GPL. But within the year I felt that was a poor fit for content. The Open Publication License (1999) rethought some of these problems and took a new approach (laying the structural foundation for the Creative Commons licenses). And we’ve seen additional problems since the OPL was first released in 1999 and Creative Commons followed in 2001. My relatively recent statement on the definition of the open in open content takes another new approach to operationalizing the construct “open” – one that is informed by lessons I’ve learned in the last decade. It’s not a new license, but new thinking a decade later about a broad framework in which everyone who shares can locate their activity. It’s goal is not to exclude, but to include. It’s goal is not to arbitrarily declare what is good enough, but to describe the options available. It’s goal is to be open and inviting, not judgmental and standoffish.

I wish we could get over our innate need to feel superior to others by establishing frameworks that allow us to judge them as inferior (and yet, at some level, that’s what this post seems to be doing, isn’t it?). I wish those of us who associate ourselves with the open community would be more open in our thinking about many things… especially openness itself.