Divisions and definitions: Diversity versus Decline in the Open Knowledge Movement

This is simultaneously a reflection on the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin and the whole “Open” movement.

For a person with a sociologically inclined background I like to turn the mirror around at the participants of the event to contrast its disseminated content. Open Knowledge is an extremely diverse movement, and thus has a propensity for fragmentation and divisiveness.

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The courtyard @ Schonhauser Allee between session

Berlin 2014 had a roster of brilliant, creative and impactful people like few events. Hackers for good, impactful politicians, intellectually inclined journalists working against the grain, young hope-eyed entrepreneurs, old willie investors, rappers would license their music under creative commons, counter-propietary artists, avant-garde professors, solar-powered social media masters, senior Brussels and national bureaucrats, Israeli government Open Data programme managers, Google executives, members of the Sierra Leone President’s Cabinet, widely popular Nepalese and Bolivian bloggers, artists specialized in visualizing data, buisnessmen looking for new ideas on how to invest and cash in, and many more to give you an idea in a far from exhaustive list.

One man who didn't buy a ticket: Rufus Pollock

OKFN’s papa: Rufus Pollock on day 3

All these persons are stakeholders in the “Open” movement, and having bought a ticket to travel, oftentimes halfway around the world, they have become supporters of the Open Knowledge Foundation. And here the complexity begins.

Even before the start of the sessions, I was fronted left and right by tense discussions of definitions. When so many specialists and generalists converge on one venue for three days, debate is invariably the result. Although marginally so, some of this discussion led to negative comments about a person’s intellectual or professional capacity and more frequently to an expressed frustration that the basic definitions of “Open” are so fluid in the first place.

 

Transparency, releasing social and commercial value, participation and egagement

Transparency, releasing social and commercial value, participation and engagement

Well they are, and within the Open movement we need to challenge and be wary of fragmentation. There is fragmentation enough, as within the realm of proprietary economies we all are forced to “specialize” in one profession over another.

It is within the nuance of these specializations that we are frequently falsely led to feel a distance from other fields which have a lot more in common then we allow ourselves to believe. Yes, I am saying that Open Government and Open Science face the same challanges, or rather the same source of challenges.

 

Open Diversity

Open Diversity

The uniting factor here is opportunity brought by our life in the middle of an information technology revolution. This is the constituent factor that has brought us all into these same auspices. Historically, both government and science were once much more open than they have been in the 19th and 20h centuries. Granted, the main element of access was heavily limited by education (giving us the ability to read and interpret these to varying degrees) and extremely restricted in terms of means of transmission. When printing, newspapers, and mass media came about, and the World rumbled towards industrialization, world wars, authoritarianism and corporatism, we introduced the hammer of intellectual property and state secrets. And now, throttled by the opportunity of massive international buisness, the IBM’s, Microsofts, Googles, Apples, Intels and so forth and guided by underappreciated geniuses like Tim Berners-Lee or Stanley Mazor, Federico Faggin, Ted Hoff or Masatoshi Shima (shame on you, look them up now) we have massive pressure on the opening of data and the adoption of transparency as a positive human universal.

A page divided will not stand

What am I trying to express? My facination with the large and growing subset of initiatives that together shape what we are calling the Open Knowledge movement is only matched by my frustration at how hard it is for educated, brilliant people to understand the corelationship of the challenges in their focus area with those in other focus areas. The underlying cause of this lack of oversight is the same factor that plagues our modern society as a whole, lack of trust and a basic need for everyone to remain afloat in the great green ocean of personal finance and find their place in the free-market-capitalist food chain.

Social Media Team on solar power

Social Media Team on solar power

In most fields specialization is where the money is, and where the money is the proprietary sets in, and where the proprietary sets in the tendency is to keep closed, just in case. In an ideal world the Open movement would be a sort of safe zone, where one could contribute and contribute and take back in turn. Most collaborative and open source projects function in this way, but in many projects contributors scramble for prestige and visibility while others try to take the common work and commercialize it for their own lucrative benefit. As one would expect these initiatives, like all human endeavours have an inherent frailty which must be cared for.

My message here is, that shaping the Open Knowledge movement to our own whim is unnecessary. Fighting Google, Microsoft or Apple directly is unnecessary. Like all forms of civic participation it is important what you do and what example you set, but it is equally important to not be “holier than thou” and respect the delicate ecosystem that we are a part of and not try to constantly shape others to our mantra, our definitions and our ways of working.

This movement needs to preserve a width worthy of its limitless potential, and definitions capable of encompassing new horizons of Open Knowledge we have not yet imagined, accessible via technologies, even if proprietary, which we have not yet conceived.

Mattias of OKFN SE

Mattias of OKFN SE

Special thanks to the Wikimedia foundation for supporting our travel to Berlin and letting us humbly contribute to the transmission of the Open Knowledge movement from Sweden to the World and back.

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