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.

12 thoughts on “Openness, Radicalism, and Tolerance”

  1. one of the saddest things about the extreme views that people have- and i refer to the extreme views of bullies like microsoft and the riaa, who actually want to put people in prison for sharing lady gaga (your attempt at aesthetic elitism fails here- gaga is talented, even if she embraces a style that we consider mainstream- she is not) while gaga herself says she doesn’t care if people share her music- the real “extreme” is authoritarianism…

    …one the saddest things about all the extremism going on is that people grow so tired of it that suddenly all principles and valid criticism look like “extremes” too. so you have people that criticize nd for being (by itself at least) a meaningless, lukewarm, pathetic pseudo-freedom, which doesn’t give people half the rights that every citizen should have, and if you say “well that’s not really good enough” we consider that to be the extreme, all with horrific regimes like acta around the corner. meanwhile, you choose to hold the people that want reform to a higher standard of open-mindedness than the darkness they stand against. it’s a simple failure of perspective, where you turn on the people calling for reform and say “you want too much reform- that’s extreme!” nonsense.

  2. Exclusion is the simplest method of gaining power in an open field.

    “And nine…nine rings were gifted to the race of Men…who above all else, desire power.”

  3. It seems humans really enjoy putting things into boxes, categorizing stuff once and for all, since it gives an illusion of structure. But creative work, as you described it, comes in many shades of gray. So how can you categorize creative work that comes in so many flavors? We don’t need clear borders, we need flavors, just like at the ice cream shop.

    Thanks for this post!

  4. I’m merely an interested outsider, so don’t really know the context here ( for example, what you mean by the condescension, etc.), but when we’re talking about “openness” in this context, aren’t we talking about what are ultimately legal questions? And isn’t law all about resolving ambiguity, and fitting things into boxes of sorts? E.g., notwithstanding unhealthy moralistic rhetoric and such, isn’t there concrete value in “establishing frameworks that allow us to judge them as inferior” (well, the trick is being precise about what “inferior” would mean)?

  5. Clearly, the problem is with all those people who are Open-Minded in Name Only (Oh-MiNe-O). As the great Steve Martin has said, intolerant people should be taken out and maimed.

  6. A CC-BY-NC-ND license would be so much better a baseline to work from than All Rights Reserved for documents in public discussion, it would be a shame to discourage people from using it, if that’s all the sharing they can muster.

    I’ve recently been trying to imagine a method to cite/link open documents that aren’t necessarily accessible at one URL but are distributed. Using a restrictive license flag like ND doesn’t wipe out fair use rights here in the US, and the ability to distribute content enhances the ability to quote limited sections, etc.

    People simply understanding copyright well enough to consider which rights they want to keep and share is a huge improvement over the status quo. Good post.

  7. It certainly makes sense to have a definition of open content (and thus “openness” in the context of educational resources) that is very inclusive. We need a fairly clear definition, not only to discuss OER among those active in the OER community, but also administrators, legislators, grant reviewers, tenure review committees, and even fellow teachers interested in OER (or considering creating OER) but not involved in the OER movement.

    Now, I would point out that your definition is not inclusive of CC BY-NC-ND, or at least, it provides measures of “openness” that finds CC BY-NC-ND wanting (because of ND and NC). A truly inclusive definition of open content cannot specify remix as an attribute. That would have to be saved for a best practices type statement on choosing an open content license.

    Moreover, your definition could also be improved if it did not privilege the “almost PD”/BSD/CC-BY licensing model over copyleft/GPL/CC-SA (from this perspective, OKD is better at defining open content). Choosing which of these two license models to use is a rhetorical choice based in part on fundamentally different beliefs in how to create knowledge for the public commons. And I would argue that we could theorize all month about which is better, but it would be impossible to prove in general, for the whole OER movement, which is the best to use for every context.

  8. Wayne suggested I might like to comment, so here is my comment. The problem with labels is that they assume homogeneity where homogeneity is rare. In South Africa, we had Apartheid that created labels for people, and even today, people use those labels with an implicit assumption of homogeneity. While I am a complete nutter when it comes to the notion of FREE (as in freedom), I am increasingly worried that people who mean the same thing, and live by the same principles, end up debating around the trivial aspects of these intellectual buckets, and end up missing the point completely. That there are licenses that range from one extreme (full copyright) to the other (public domain), and there are appropriate cases for all of them. Knowing when to use which license for which benefit is more important than the label one applies.

    On the other hand, David’s post is really about tolerance. The real reason for the origin of the term ‘open source’ in software is not really a difference in fundamental philosophy, but a difference in tolerance. Stallman’s extreme view (which I support) and his intolerance around it (which I do not support) caused the schisim between ‘free’ and ‘open’. Much of which we debate in in fact not fundamental philosophy, but the outcome of human intolerance. It would be a great shame for intolerance to continue to underly our work in this area of free and open educational content. I personally don’t like the term ‘open’, and I will continue to use ‘free’, but I am quite happy to tolerate people who use ‘open’ because in the vast majority of cases we are talking about the same thing. My only real desire is that people actually understand their choice of license. Even today, almost everyone I talk to outside of a specific ‘community’ do not understand licenses, and often choose a license for entirely the wrong reason.

    Whether we talk about ‘free’ or ‘open’, we need to raise awareness of the impact of license choice.

    Regarding the differences between software (apples) and content (expressed as other fruit), sure there are differences. However, we need to realise that in a competitive economy, the cost of a good tends to the marginal cost of production. For both software and content, the marginal cost of producion is effectively zero. Both are non-rivalrous goods as well. Hence, they have a lot more in common than they have different. The only fundamental difference between them is in their error tolerance, but other than fatal errors, even that difference may not be as great as we think.

  9. Despite how it may look at first glance, there are no general objective tests to tell whether or not modifications of software have improved it. Some bugfixes almost always are, but is porting to a more recent system an improvement? Is adapting it to meet your needs instead of the original author’s an improvement? Maybe.

    And we don’t rejoice at CC-BY-NC-ND because fair use is insufficient, while NC is ill-defined and more advantageous for the rich than for workers who need to earn a living from the net combination of their actions.

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