Behind closed doors

The world has apparently become much more “open” of late. In case you hadn’t noticed, this prefix is being yoked to all manner of venerable disciplines and institutions. Journalists, architects, politicians and academics are just some of the people flirting with “open”. From open journalism at The Guardian to open-source architecture, these initiatives are striving to incorporate an ethos of openness which has emerged with the growth of the internet.

Here’s the nub. Over the last five years the internet has begun to usher in elemental changes in both the how and the who of a wide range of endeavours. Networks - Facebook, Twitter, Kickstarter, etc. - have provided new ways of sharing and participating. New tools of the networks - GitHub, Google Documents, Dropbox, etc. - have forged new ways of co-creating, from testing ideas to revising and incorporating feedback. Alongside these new ways of working, we are reaching a point where so much of what we create - not just our projects and our work but our memories, our experiences, our interests - are being farmed out to networks that those networks have themselves become active participants in the process. These paths and connections - some visible, some invisible - can be powerful and exciting. The clamour to embrace “open”, or perhaps even more importantly to be seen to be embracing “open”, is not surprising.

Take the Guardian’s Open Journalism initiative, for example. Launched a few weeks ago with a slick advertisement archly reworking the children’s fairy tale Three Little Pigs and a weekend festival of debates with a plethora of famous names, it was a shiny and well-produced affair. Yet behind the razzle-dazzle lies sense and substance. The way information is gathered, shared and developed has changed. Audiences are no longer passive recipients of information in the same way they were in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much can be achieved by enlisting audiences and encouraging them to contribute to stories. The Guardian’s investigation into MPs’ expenses, where thousands of readers helped pore over documents in search of interesting and unusual claims, is one successful example of open journalism in action. There are many more. In fact, this open and inclusive approach seems so sane and natural that in just a few years “open journalism” will probably just be called journalism again.

The open approach has taken off in the design world as well. OpenIDEO, by the design consultancy IDEO, describes itself as “an open innovation platform”, which attempts to conjure up answers to big social challenges, such as “how can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?” It’s a laudable aim with a practical approach, but it suffers from centuries-old idealism: that technology can fundamentally change societies. Of course, technology can help to solve political and social problems, but its impact is often exaggerated. The other issue with such “collective intelligence” is the possibility that it actually impedes individual intelligence.

“An overabundance of connections over which information can travel too cheaply can reduce diversity, foster groupthink, and keep radical ideas from taking hold.”

That’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger writing in the journal Science in 2009. He’s troubled by the incremental nature of changes within networks and whether collaborative approaches may stifle innovation. While the OpenIDEO platform provides a clear structure for people to cooperate by breaking the problem into phases - inspiration, connecting, evaluation - before coming up with “winning ideas”, its success in changing the world remains to be proven.

Open-source architecture is another “open” notion that has emerged over the last twelve months. Domus published a manifesto for open-source architecture in May 2011. Here’s a quote from the article:

“Its purpose is to transform architecture from a top-down immutable delivery mechanism into a transparent, inclusive and bottom-up ecological system– even if it still includes top-down mechanisms.”

Such an approach to architecture can be traced back to people like Christopher Alexander, who believes that users know a lot more about the buildings they require than architects ever could. It also taps in to the increasing connectivity and automation of buildings, for example the Twitter house by Andy Stanford-Clark. But how will this new approach sit with the monumental, top-down “solutions” of traditional architects? And where does it leave the aesthetics of architecture? Can beauty be achieved with an incremental approach? Rarely has great art been achieved by a gang of artists daubing on layer after layer of paint. We will see.

When you look at the range of so-called “open” endeavors, what starts to become clear is that each approach needs to be judged on its individual merits. After all, openness may not always be good and control may not always bad. When we start talking about open government data, for example, questions about how our data will be protected immediately come to the fore.

Besides, the internet itself is not looking so open after all. Legislation, from Sopa in the US to the prospect of more web surveillance in the UK, are attempting to erode online freedom. Businesses with their own agendas - from Facebook to Google to Apple - are building “walled gardens”, which lock down the web in exchange for the promise of greater security and convenience. With these threats to the openness at the heart of the web, the evolution of open into new offline realms could be a boon.

Just as film became not just a 20th-century art form, but part of the 20th-century mind, so the open, networked approach of the internet has the potential to shape our ways of thinking in the 21st century - if only we let it.

This article was first published in The Kernel.