A plea for Openness in knowledge and information revolution

About 12 month ago I moved to London. During this experience I’ve met lot of new people and I’ve been in touch with many new ideas and many new perspectives.
One of those interesting contacts has been with the School of Open at Mozilla Foundation Conference that inspired in asking myself: “What does Open mean?” in a broader sense.
I decided drop here what I humbly learned in this long journey started 10 years ago when I joined the communities of Free Software.

photo: "OPEN" sign, by John Martinez Pavliga
CC-BY image courtesy of John Martinez Pavliga

In the last 30 years we have seen the growing role of knowledge and information in technology, economy and society: this is the knowledge and information revolution.
Previous information revolutions have been shaped by the diffusion of Gutenberg’s work on the printing press and later by Marconi’s radio and the following television.
Internet today is not anymore a one way communication: is the first mass communication media where we are now content producers and contributors and our network is the audience.

Openness for me initially means removing barriers , create content and make it available for everyone. Wikipedia or MIT OpenCourseWare are only two very different and both extraordinary examples among many. Sharing, unlocking our best knowledge and making it available and accessible across the entire planet is amazing compared to what was possible few years ago.

This change in information production and use is slowly affecting us in many dimensions.
One example is about our life as citizens. In many contexts the distributed network of relationships became the platform to create new initiatives like Ushahidi, the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring. And I believe we have seen only the beginning.
Democracy is a system in which all citizens have an equal say in some decisions, but we know this system works only if they are informed decisions based on sufficiently complete data. For democracies information and knowledge is an indispensable ingredient to get out of the “political economy of mass media”.
Still today many societies are still driven by totalitarian (closed) systems and I think in not a coincidence that an open information system (Internet) helped to start a changing process to a more democratic and open forms of government as result of the Arab Spring.

Beware, the Network is still not egalitarian: in a network the hubs has often got the power to influence. Internet is just a more flat, loosely coupled and fluid network from the traditional information systems. Openness can only more easily flourish on top of it.
We still rely on some small hubs to get our information like Google or Facebook. And yet, more countries that we are used to think, continue to apply filters to Internet: in this panorama China is only the tip of the iceberg of the problem of Network Neutrality.
Any regulation that has been proposed to add forms of central control to the Network are serious threat to our security and freedom of speech. Today SOPA is just one of the worst examples. Journalism principles and our educational systems need to play a more important role to learn how to distinguish trust-able sources and make our mind able to be critic. But we also need to make this role more related to a good peer review model rather than the influence given by the tradition of the institution that is producing an idea or the stickiness of some content that make it viral.
A real platform for knowledge must be inclusive and agnostic. Internet is not good or bad, is the content we put in it that is qualitatively good or bad. And is the use me make of that information that can be morally right or wrong.

Openness and sharing is today also the engine of new knowledge and ideas production.
Many and new forms of art are flourishing around the cross-pollination of ideas and some other in the digital space are growing from the reuse made possible by Creative Commons.
Different studies1 report that today in science and technology research is not carried by ingenious individuals, but by the effort and collaboration of entire groups who share their results.
Finally, knowledge is the seed of innovation and today also one of the engines of large scale economy. More than 20 of top 200 companies by revenue are from the Information Technology, Telecommunications and Information based services and many didn’t exist few years ago. Sadly information, more than traditional goods, can be easily hidden, locked and at last also used to subtly influence decisions.

Transparency is another concept that is strictly related to Openness.
Governments and public organisations are today starting a process to bring their information available following initiatives like Open Data or similar models.
Private organisations are trying to change, at least internally, to meet the transparency principles. In particular in the Information Technology sector, some of them are already embracing the open model also outside of the organisation boundaries.

Today information revolution is also a revolution of interpersonal network relations. In this new topology the Plato’s dialogue is not enough: we are moving towards a model where on the other side there are many contributors who can debate and keep decisions collectively. Ideas are moving faster, changing owners quickly and evolving in a Darwinian-like system. The difficult part is: are we already able to dissociate the ideas from the individuals that are carrying them? and follow their evolution?
I feel that we are still failing on how to decide which is the best model and medium for the topic and the audience involved.
Today ideas are not more on two different sides, but are clustered along multiple dimensions.
Left and right are concepts born during the industrial revolution. The information and knowledge revolution is still searching a new concept and new models.

Some people are scared that blogs and any non-peer-reviewed information will bring down the quality of the content we find on the Web.
Is up to everyone and each of us to know the basic concepts that helps us distinguish good and bad quality information. Is very easy for us to re-share an information but very few spend time to verify or it.
Recently reading one of Ethan Zuckerman’s research results I learned about how we tend to add in our network people that are similar to us.
In this network with few hubs and many nodes, the figures acting as bridges are the future of how we are going to make the World Wide Web wider and avoid narrowing our point of view.
We, in first person, must be willing to cross this bridge: rewire the system, fix our media, fix the internet, fix the education.
Many of us initially thought that Openness was only about licences, copyrights and Richard Stallman’s 4 software freedoms. For me Openness today is also about people and society, being an active contributor and embracing diversity , being able to understand different opinions, different ideas and different cultures.

Today not sharing an information is the equivalent of killing its growth: being passive is becoming equivalent to opposing to it. Is up to us to disagree or agree, share or influencing your peers with knowledge that we find important (or not).
Ethics and moral responsibility is today in the hands of each of us more than has been in any point in the past.

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours.”
(Tim Barnes Lee)

Knowledge and ideas are the oil and gas for the future generations. Please take care of them, keep them free and don’t lock them to help the world express its full power and potential.
Is a new challenge for politics and our education system to understand the importance of this new resource and safeguard it.

“Your obligation is that of active participation. You should not act as knowledge absorbing sponges but as whetstone on which we can all sharpen our wits”
(Edsger W. Dijkstra)