Open is Cancelled
Before you read this, I want you to go and take a peek here. Stay with it until the end.
Back now? Feeling ready to channel your amygdala through your little toe?
It’s time for open to disband.
The leaders have proven themselves morally bankrupt. The community is toxic. Copyright and software licences have failed to control bad actors and to support marginalised creators. The underlying theory is flawed and shallow. It’s time to move on and create a new wave of ethics focused community management tools for code and content.
This isn’t the first serious reckoning the open community has had, but we must ensure it’s the last.
It’s time to build a new movement, one fit for an era of rising fascism and climate justice. A movement that centres marginalised creators and users. A movement based on a theory of change that isn’t childlike and naive in its emphasis on formal legal documents. A movement that focuses on dismantling power structures and building solidarity across diverse groups.
We need to create what Sarah Mei calls “justice oriented software.” Except we need it for more than software. We need “justice oriented” data, “justice oriented” education, “justice oriented” science, “justice oriented” government, and “justice oriented” access to scholarly literature.
Maybe you thought that’s what “open” meant? I know I did and I suspect that’s what most GLAM sector workers, teachers, and public servants who have been supporting open thought too. I guess that’s our bad for not looking critically enough.
I want to see a whole “justice oriented” internet. Because the reality is that unless justice is centred, unless systems, technological and social, are built with the needs of oppressed groups at the forefront — anything we build will only serve to reinforce existing inequities.
Focus on that little toe and let it yell at you.
And yes, justice is a slippery concept — one whose meaning is contextual and contested. So is “open.” That’s OK. We need to have these conversations about what justice means, what fairness means, what equity means. These conversations are a key part of vibrant civic discourse. One that’s been suppressed by the framing of “open” versus “closed” in the conversation about justice in the digital world.
The open movement as it now exists has failed to bring about a better world, but more than that — it’s making it harder for the rest of us to build that world. The failures of the open movement aren’t only with its men or with its leaders. These failures go far beyond individuals. They are deeper, part of the core of the ideology underpinning the movement. And the movement has sucked the oxygen from the room for too long.
The open movement failed when it centred freedom over justice. It failed when it placed abstract principles above actual human lives. It failed again when misogyny, racism, and colonialism went unchecked and unchallenged. When the movement failed to understand structures of oppression and chose instead to emphasise individual solutions to collective challenges, it failed. It failed again and again and again when it chose to privilege a bizarre and fetishised rationalism over the lived experiences of embodied human beings.
The atrocious behavior and words of men like Lessig and Joi and Stallman shouldn’t be understood as the one-off failures of specific men, but rather as a reflection of deeper flaws in the underlying philosophy behind open. Open as we understand it comes from Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper defined open within a colonialist and masculinist framework.
Deeply rooted in the myths of progress, primitivism, and with breathtaking epistemological arrogance, Popper’s vision of the open society presents an iron cage of dualisms that have framed conversations about technology for so long that the bars have become an invisible fixture.
Our commitment to openness has foreclosed our imaginations. So long as the problem is defined as one of ‘closure,’ open projects will be blind to other politics, other ways of knowing and understanding how we organise, how we share power, and how we imagine our shared future. The framing of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ leaves us without the tools needed to confront violent extremism, online radicalisation, rising inequality, and ecological catastrophe.
The liberatory potential of the internet — the potential for community organising and for horizontal solidarity building — can only be realised when we break ourselves out of dualistic thinking and embrace the complex moral world in which we live. More than that though, we are now all working to a shared timescale dictated by our still rising carbon emissions. Just as we cannot confront and eliminate misogyny from our spaces without new thinking, so too do we need new thinking to decarbonise and manage a just transition.
Once the open movement frees itself from binding dualisms, we can learn to think in creative and flexible ways. The kind of thinking we need now recognises and respects Indigenous wisdom and ways of knowing. It understands that a wide variety of analytical tools and epistemological traditions have value. Rather relying on a narrow and harsh rationalism, this new thinking will embrace the embodied complexity of lived human experiences.
The extreme privileging of a specific kind of rationalism has dominated the open movement and its discourse for so long that other ways of knowing have been all but disappeared from our discourse. The kind of thinking we need now recognises and values emotion as an important aspect of how we understand and know the world.
By freeing ourselves from the framework of open/closed and dualistic thinking, we create the potential for communities where misogyny, racism, and colonialism can be named and challenged. We create the potential for entirely new kinds of solidarity building and new kinds of social relationships — ones mediated through the internet, but rooted in kindness, compassion, and mutual respect.