Dreaming of the Big Open

During Mozfest 2017, together with Nicole Ebber from Wikimedia Germany we organized a workshop on the Big Open. We proposed this term to propose a shared project within the varied open movements to search for a shared vision and possibility of cooperation. (There was also a fabulous panel on this theme, with Ugo Vallauri, Katherine Maher, Ryan Merkley and Mark Surman).

The Big Open Mozfest Poster by Lena Anna Schiller.

The Big Open idea has been a recurring thought for me this year. At the OER17 conference, I spoke about connected open as a way of solving one of the key challenges of the open education movement. At the Creative Commons Summit 2017, the Future of the Commons track was a space to address this idea — extending beyond the current CC network was an important part of the strategic redesign of this network. Finally, the conversation between Wikimedia, Mozilla and Creative Commons on Big Open started with a debate at Wikimania 2017.

Here are four key ideas that have resonated with me as I have been preparing for the Mozfest workshop, and thinking about the Big Open. Hopefully, the Big Open project will soon collectively define a shared set of issues and challenges.

The Big Open is a social movement

We may consider creating coalitions, confederations and consortia. Key organizations may decide to run project together and form inter-organizational committees to further cooperation. Yet the Big Open is foremost a social movement: a loosely coordinated by shared purpose and values.

Before there was the Firefox browser, CC licenses or the Wikipedia, there were people struggling to free code, content and data. Together they formed a movement that was in many ways unique — in each case, many of the activists were also makers. But humans were needed to build tools and technologies that we now see as core elements of these respective projects.

Social movements go through phases, and growth of professional organizations within a movement is a natural step. Yet the power of these organizations, their resolve and focus, is a force that splinters the open. Open Access or Open Education are by now such broad spheres, in which powerful actors engaged in own core mission might sometimes lose track of the bigger picture, the adaptive vision that should fuel technical change.

The Big Open will fix Open Silos

It’s a paradox that something that is about openness can end up splintered, divided into silos. It’s the price we pay for becoming so big over the years. The point is not to destroy silos — but we need to connect them together. Make them aware of each other, make them cooperate with each other, make them define and share a bigger, common purpose.

That is why we need to think in terms of the broad movement and reconnect people around a common cause. Ąs individuals, we wear many hats at once. At COMMUNIA, our European association on the digital public domain, members of diverse organizations and communities — including CC and Wikipedia — work together without paying too much attention to formal affiliations. Across the world, our communities overlap and people self-identify with many goals and projects. It is this movement that needs to be strenghtened by our collective action, rather than just particular projects and organization.

In order to do this we need a team of Openers of the Open: connectors, bridge builders, translators, bards.

We also need to return to the big, bold visions that fuelled the open movements at their very beginnings. And by these I do not just mean organization strategies, although I appreciate a lot new frame for action offered for example by Mozilla’s internet health metaphor. We need heroes. When I joined the Creative Commons movement, one of my greatest inspirations was not the idea, but the personal example and bold ideas of Larry Lessig.

The Big Open has to be political

Across the open movement, many projects like to think of themselves as agnostic to politics. In Open Education, the field in which I do a lot of my work, people often treat free licensing as a non-controversial move that supports innovation, equity or cost efficiency.

We forget that current times are marked by an ongoing struggle concerning our rights to access and use knowledge and culture. At the turn of the century, the rise of Napster was like shots fired at the start of a revolution. And today Sci Hub exists to remind us of the highly political stakes in access to knowledge.

Advocates of open need to treat their work as political and address in particular regulatory and economic barriers. Key organizations in the movement — such as Creative Commons, Mozilla, Open Knowledge International or Mozilla lead by example by supporting strong policy teams. Their efforts need to be more visible and resonate more strongly within respective communities. Commoners cannot reduce their work to licensing photographs or 3D models, Wikipedians cannot think of themselves as just makers of the Encyclopedia, and Mozillians need to be conscious about the politics behind web technologies.

The Big Open is a telescope pointed at the future

It has become a truism that we live in a time of rapid technological change that disrupts our societies, shakes up our value systems, mutates the way we do things, relate to each other, see the world. It is a reality which requires constant re-adjustments of strategies and tactics. And a constant reminder that our core values, our purpose should remain constant. This relates to the point I made above — ultimately, open has to be defined in a political sense, by referring to basic values, and basic rights.

You need an extremely large telescope to acquire detailed knowledge of the cosmos. Similarly, we need to work together, pool our varied insights and perspectives, to make sense of the future in all of its complexity. Collectively defining new tools, strategies and narratives will be easier — and also more fun.

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