Another Way of Thinking About Open…

One of the many improvements in my life since I started running has been the number of books I’ve been able to read (trans: listen to). Some of my recent running reading has been swirling around in my head during the semi-annual meeting of Shuttleworth Foundation Fellows I’m currently attending in Malta. This meeting is always a fantastic opportunity to think, rethink, and reconceptualize “open.” No, I haven’t changed my mind about open. But I do think there is an additional way to think about open, another perspective that can add to our understanding of the construct, that I don’t hear people talking about.

One of the arguments in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society goes like this:

  • History is filled with technological innovations that increased productivity, meaning that producing a widget after the technology was introduced was significantly cheaper than producing it before it was introduced (c.f., the assembly line).
  • In competitive markets where firms compete on price, improved productivity and the resulting lower costs mean that a firm can lower its prices in order to gain advantage over a competitor.
  • We are reaching the point where productivity gains are driving the marginal cost of many products toward zero.
  • When the marginal cost to produce a product tends toward zero, competition makes the consumer price of the product tend toward zero, which ultimately results in profits on that product tending toward zero.
  • When there is very little profit to be made, investors will not put their capital to work in that market because they can receive a greater return by investing it elsewhere.
  • Consequently, in highly competitive markets where technology has created huge productivity gains – driving marginal costs and profits toward zero – capitalism is quickly reaching the point where it has “run its course.” That is, when those with capital are unwilling to invest it in a market, that market can no longer be said to be a part of the “capitalist system.”

Rifkin makes several points in the book, but this observation that ‘capitalism is “eating itself” by investing in the creation of technologies that drive productivity gains so far that margins fall to the point that capital stops flowing into certain sectors’ is fascinating to me.

The Internet, of course, is the quintessential example of a technological innovation that has driven incredible productivity gains. It is now orders of magnitude less expensive to create and offer a whole range of products and services than it was in the days Before Internet.

The aha I had this morning, participating in the breakout group on sustainability, is that you can think of “open” as being a member of this family of technological innovations. That is to say that, among the many ways you can think of open, one way to think of open is as a particularly powerful innovation in a long line of technological innovations that drive productivity gains.

Take the specific context of textbooks. The move from physically setting type to digital authoring created huge productivity gains, the move from physical distribution to online distribution created huge productivity gains, and the move from reliance on proprietary / royalty-based content to openly licensed content created huge productivity gains. Consequently, open textbooks are orders of magnitude less expensive to create than traditional print textbooks, and they’re an order of magnitude less expensive to produce than digital commercial products. (When I say that open textbooks are one or more orders of magnitude less expensive to create than their traditional counterparts, I mean textbooks which you assemble from pre-existing OER – not textbooks you produce from scratch and place an open license on.)

This increased productivity in open textbook creation is one of the many benefits that we will enjoy more fully once the open education infrastructure has been built out more completely. Each layer in the infrastructure is an additional productivity multiplier. Imagine the kinds of things we’ll be able to rapidly build and iterate on… Imagine the kinds of things students will be able to do and iterate on… The costs will be so minimal that the opportunities to be creative in how we approach learning will be nearly unlimited.

I’m not entirely sure what new connections and understandings will arise from placing open in this new context, but I love, Love, LOVE new ways of thinking about and understanding open.

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  • Dan

    There is certainly still room for capitalism and capital in the realm of OER. Even though open textbooks may cost less to produce, there are still costs. These costs need to be covered somehow. Among the overhead costs could well be profits for shareholders and investors. That drives up overall costs, which you would think would make it less competitive, but see what is happening in the open access journal publishing market where the large commercial publishers still dominate.

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  • John Kline

    Hi David,

    Did you happen to see the email I sent to you last week? Sent to your lumen email address.