What is Open?

The word "Open" is appearing all over the marketing sphere these days. It's been leapt upon gleefully the same way that "Low fat," "Organic" and "All natural" were latched onto by the processed food industry once the plausible definitions of those terms were sufficiently stretched and distorted to suit proprietary interests...

I hear the word open in many contexts these days, and the actual meaning of the word is seldom made explicit by those invoking it despite the fact that it has become very nuanced and context-dependent. As a result, I've decided to have a crack at establishing a general definition, with special attention paid to the contexts of technology and software which are areas of particular passion for me. The following is a first cut, which is based on what I wrote for the good folks running the Open Source // Open Society conference in Wellington (16-17 April 2015):

"Open" means aiding and encouraging the human urge to share, explore and improve. That sharing is irrevocable, and is not limited by precautionary measures or dependent on permission from some presiding power.

Anything that thwarts peoples’ desire to share, explore, and improve is closed, not open.

The digital movement which has given the global human commons a wealth of Free and Open Source Software, open data, open hardware, and many other "open" capabilities taps into the underlying human urge for openness that has always existed. The revolution of permissionless innovation and digital abundance made possible by the Internet has countered the trend over the past century for private "proprietary" interests to exploit, and eventually bleed dry, the commons - the wealth of physical, cultural, and digital resources on which we all fundamentally depend. Listed public multinational corporation have been most "successful" at privatising profit while "externalising" costs, especially to the environment. Their rising dominance has seen the greatest growth in human inequality, and a general imbalance in our ecosystems. They have exacerbated the burdens of our ever increasing population and its own demands on the commons. They, and their adherent mercenaries and governments, are the main threat to openness.

I will contribute to any efforts to consciously reverse common commercial (and, increasingly, cultural) practises that deny people the right to share, to participate, to collaborate - those things which strive to "tilt the playing field" to favour proprietary interests. I encourage us all to celebrate the commons, both physical and virtual, and work to expand and improve commonly-held resources for the benefit of all, rather than to exploit them for our own limited gain.