The social value of openness versus the economic value of closure

Tim Berners-Lee is something of a hero to me. This is the man that had it in his hands to make the web a commercial venture, probably with prospect of personal significant financial gain, and yet chose to make it free and open.

All this video at Le Web 2014 is very interesting and mostly revolves around the openness versus closure debate, but this section at the end is the most significant:

How can we help you in your struggle to keep the web open and free?”, asks Loic. To which Tim responds something like: Keep fighting to keep it open! You spend 95% of your time using the web; take 5% of that time to defend it! Also, when you’re building applications, you’re building a part of of a system that is partly social and partly technical. When you’re building that technical part (I would add “commercial part”), think of the social implications.

Of course, Tim Berners-Lee is very much against the silos that undermine the originally intended and now realized openness of the web, whether those silos are native apps (versus web apps) or closed social networking sites. That means defending net neutrality and the potential of the web to bridge social and cultural differences and contribute to world peace and universal joy (the phrasing may seem ironic, but it isn't).

This leads us to view the current (and predictable) state of the web as that of an opposition between the social value of its openness and the commercial value of its closure. When I studied the value of information and the way the transformations in the media industry reflected changes in that value, I concluded that this digital technologies all around us decrease the economic value of information but increase its social value. In very much the same way Tim Berners-Lee points it out: the digital communication technologies we use via the web allow us to connect and share and organize in ways that were not possible in the past. That is a social improvement — both from an individual and a collective point of view — that stems directly from the openness of the web. Commercial value, on the other hand — I concluded — can only come from some form of closure, whether that is an Apple-like native app store or a data-scrapping walled garden like Facebook. This is of course because openness leads to abundance and closure — in this context — imposes an artificial form of scarcity (curiously enough, it was precisely this kind of technical limitations — now artificially created — that Tim Berners-Lee sought to overcome in the first place).

I’ve always wondered if the greater threat to a free and open web would come from the governments, interested in keeping control of citizens in the midst of the massive deregulation imposed by these technologies, or from the corporations or groups of corporations whose business are affected by it. But — here’s the thing! — governments act very much on behalf of corporations, unless people demand it differently! And that is exactly where Tim Berners-Lee wanted to get in the end. It’s all up to us really! We should enjoy our 95% of happy browsing on the web and take 5% of our time to keep the web open and free. When we do so, we are not just preserving our use of the web; we are also fighting for its social value. Namely in promoting world peace and universal joy! I hope this is “utopian” enough for you! ☺

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(One other thing, slightly but not entirely off-topic: at one point in the interview, Tim Berners-Lee, argues against this ongoing battle between ever sophisticated privacy imposing systems and equally ever sophisticating hacking and piracy schemes. And suggests something much more simple: the rule of law! The rule of law is our choice. We, as informed citizens pertaining to a community, have the right and the ability to take part in the formulation of the rules by which we abide. And — has Tim Berners-Lee says —there is no reason, certainly no technical reason, why our laws should not be integrated into the algorithms or imposed by algorithms controlling the other algorithms. If a bank whishes to use information about clients in his risk calculating algorithms, there should be law algorithms controlling if that is abiding. Take personal data, for instance. In Europe we have very strong laws preserving the treatment of personal data. Yet the law somehow exists in a sort of parallel universe to that of the flow of information in which the data is used. Those laws should be incorporated into the algorithms and flow on the same streams. It’s certainly time our laws cease behaving like a dog chasing a light and start using the some techologies the possible perpretators use. I don’t know if this suggestion Tim Berners-Lee made in new or not. It certainly is to me. And, to be honest, it is the first really intelligent thing I heard in this noisy and entrenched debate about privacy, security and surveillance.)

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