what is the open movement?

by admin

So a few Montreal geeky types convened at the Office (aka Laika) for a sort-of impromptu discussion to try to figure out what the hell is going on in the world, and specifically what this “Open Movent” might be, and what connections we can draw (if any) between it’s various strands: that is, are there any connection between:

The group was mainly geeks, and unfortunately Devlin couldn’t make it. That’s too bad because Devlin isn’t a geek, and works in agricultural IP issues, mostly in the South (ie developing countries) and his take on things might have helped us find the root we couldn’t grasp: biotech/IP issues are important in those countries because they have a direct impact on farmers’ choices about how they feed their families, how they live – if they can feed their families – and so are, in some sense, more critical than what we were talking about.

But I feel that there is an important link between all these things, a link that is very difficult to articulate because all these “sectors” talk in very different words, and are motivated by very different things. The hard-core geeks and the creative commons artistic freedom fighters are not necessarily talking about the same things, and probably wouldn’t agree on much.

Julien assigned me the task of summarizing the 1.5 hr discussion, but I don’t think I’ll do that. It would be a disservice, and I’m much more interested in what those attending have to say themselves (get writing!) than trying to interpret what they had to say, and butchering their thoughts in the process. Still, what I’ll try to do is summarize my perspective of things, after trying to absorb the discussions. I’ll probably leave out things like “I think” and “in my opinion” and “as steve said” etc…Take what comes below as an open reflection that could encourage comment & discussion, and not exactly my categorical statement of Reality in the Universe (although it might sound like that).

To start with, there are links, they are important, and figuring out what those links are is important. But all these “new movements” are in fact not new at all: the various principles the intellectual movements are built on (say: freedom, equality, access to data/information) are all old successful ideas. Ideas that are compelling because they appeal to successful and enduring notions in many cultures. For instance: sharing is good (kindergarten class #1), everyone should have access to knowledge (public libraries, public schools), a society should try to give everyone the same opportunities – ie you shouldn’t be explicitly barred from doing something because of race, creed, colour; but we might not do too much to help you.

These ideas are not at all universal, but just happen to be prevailing ideas of our particularly successful (ie good at economic & military dominance) western liberal democracies. We happen to be at the top of the heap right now. Meaning we’ve been successful, but not necessarily meaning that the Universe has designated us Kings of the Planet.

Note also: Not everyone is motivated by such abstract ideas. This is something that Mike speaks of with great passion from his experience at ISF: many people are involved because they like coding, they like wires & antennae, they like fiddling with projects, tinkering, building. That they’re doing something for the “good of humanity” (freedom etc) might be important to some, but it’s certainly not the universal motivator. Some couldn’t care less.

So here’s what I think: Humans are programmed to find ways to overcome environmental challenges, and to get pleasure from overcoming them (which encourages them to overcome them). If you look at the history of human civilization, you could look at it as a series of problems: access to water, access to food, access to heat/energy, access to clothing, access to shelter, access to mates. “Civilization” is an evolving process which morphs based on a lack of any combination of those, and cultures develop as codified ways to meet those needs, in more and more complex ways, generally for more people. Wars start when one culture’s need for one thing rams up against another culture’s need for another; successful cultures are the ones that win wars, and gain access to what they need; or cultures that succeed in negotiating in some non-war way. Unsuccessful cultures don’t win the wars, and get denied access to varying degrees. Similarly within a culture you’ve got warring factions all fighting for bits of the stuff that satisfies those needs. And the drive for wealth, the drive for power etc. is a sensible thing to have within the system of a culture because it means that the culture, as a system, will be driven to maintain access to the things which fulfil those base needs. As the world & it’s cultures get more complex, this need is abstracted out to other things. So you get art, computer games, religion etc. But in a way that’s just a fetishized expression of the same thing. (That guy’s pyramid, whatever his name is). Even when you have all the water, food, mates etc you could possibly want, your drive to solve those problems is still there; your drive to solve problems full-stop is still there. Otherwise you would fade away. That drive to solve problems manifests itself in art, in the joy of coding, in building bookshelves…anytime you “do” something, accomplish something, build something, and you feel good about it, you’ve filling that need; and the pleasure you get out of it is a genetic signal that you’re a functioning human. There are of course exceptions, but bear with me.

So: Humans are happiest when they build things (whether that’s a poem, a bridge, a printer driver code, or a field of corn, a new way to generate energy, a library, a community of freedom-fighting geeks). Let’s say we are genetically (culturally?) programmed to get satisfaction from completing tasks, making something. Some tasks are more fulfilling than others, but in general even completing excruciatingly boring tasks results in a pleasing feeling. You can describe this in many different ways, but we generally feel pride and happiness about accomplishments.

We use various tools to accomplish these tasks, to build things & do things. Hammers and ibooks, and apple scripts, paintbrushes, shovels, encyclopedias, calculators. And people who are driven to build things (say, the tinkerers, the programmers, the car buffs and the CEOs, the politicians & the activists) are pretty pissed when they are told that they cannot make the tools they use better. So when, for instance, a software company gives you a tool to do a job, and you say to yourself, this is OK but what I really want is THIS; but the software company says: you cannot change the tool to do THIS, you can only do THAT. Well that pisses off someone who has a job to do, an inefficient tool, the means to make that bad tool into a good tool; but gets artificially prevented from improving that tool by IP protections. That, I think, is the root of the Free Software movement. That a non-free software system that doesn’t allow tool users to use tools the way they want, and to improve those tools offends their general desire to build things and do things. If you have a bad tool and the means to make it a good tool, it’s really shitty not to be able to make it a good tool.

Now you can abstract THAT out to everything else related. Art, data, scientific research, education, seeds etc. are all tools used to solve problems. Those problems could be very base & important (how do I feed my family), or very trivial (how do I make a better songlist in iTunes), but we are driven to DO these things and build these things and solve problems; and that we are driven this way means that we as a species are good at overcoming environmental challenges. ie It has been essential for our survival that this be the case.

So I *think* this open movement is about something very fundamental to the survival of the human species, that is: we want the ability to get and use tools to solve whatever problems we deem worth solving.

The free movement is about defending this fundemental need of humans to use tools as they wish, for purposes they wish, and with whatever modifications they wish. And the different strands grow out of different people’s interest in different tools (encyclopedias or bits of code, or music samples). So we are against:

  • DRM that says you can use this piece of art only like this
  • proprietary software that says you can only use this software the way we want you to use it, and you cannot make it better to do what you need
  • closed government data systems that say, we will manage & interpret the data for you, the way we decide to do it
  • IP protected seeds, that say you may plant these seeds only as we tell you, and if you pay us
  • closed scientific journals that say: you can get access to this scientific knowledge only if you pay us this much money
  • information/education systems that say: you can only have this knowledge under these conditions
  • communiction infrastructure that says: you may exchange data and information like this, and with these charges associated

And we are for: Allowing humans to use their tools as they see fit, and to modify their tools if they want to modify them so that they are better at solving problems. By “opening” this stuff up, we give humans access to more data and more ability to solve problems (trivial, critical) in creative ways. The Open movement has huge implications for the future survival of cultures, and perhaps the species.

NOTE about participants (ie people who happened to be there): brett (videoblogger & film maker), mike (isf founder & general free movement spitter), robin (anarchist software developer), steve (builder of opensource tools for scientific collaboration), julien (ace podcaster), and me (in my LibriVox hat, I guess). Ella, an artist & blogger and non-boy popped over to our table a couple of times, but I think we were stupidly much less welcoming than we should have been – more out of intentness of our conversation than anything conscious – and I would like to personally apologize for that.