Hope for democracy from the open source movement

Thank you, Twitter, for bringing this amazing presentation to my attention. I’m a fan of Clay Shirky although you might not know it from my not-exactly-a-rave review of Cognitive Surplus (interesting to see the subtitle changed from “Creativity And Generosity In A Connected Age” to “How Technology Makes Consumers Into Collaborators” between the hardcover and paperback release – not sure I’ve ever seen that happen before). But after watching this TED Talk presentation, I understand the reason for the subtitle change, as it’s very much the theme of this talk.

If you care about democracy, if you’re currently a politician, and perhaps if you’re one of those people who don’t vote because you’ve been around long enough to see that those one helps elect don’t always fulfill their campaign promises  – hell – I don’t care who you are really – I think you need to watch this video. In other words, only the world’s would-be megalomaniacs should NOT watch it (and hopefully I’m flying under their radar anyway). For those who, like me, have an easier time taking in information via words on a page or a screen, there’s a very brief summary below.

Sharky’s initial question is, ‘What happens when a new medium puts a lot of new ideas into circulation?’ and he briefly looks at the three tees (telegraph, telephone, and television), all disruptive technologies for which their societies had high hopes: once we can actually get information, talk to each other easily, surely world peace will result. Erm, didn’t happen. He then goes back to the printing press, perhaps the single most disruptive technology we as a species will ever experience. Thought of initially as ‘a tool that would enforce Catholic hegemony,’ says Shirky – but instead we got Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War.

His explanation for why this is the human response to disruptive technology: when a lot of new ideas suddenly begin to circulate society is changed because it allows new mediums through which more people can weigh in with their points of view. This tends not to lead initially to world peace, but rather to more arguing:  ‘more media ALWAYS means more arguing.’

He then talks about the Invisible College (mid 17th C, about 150 years after the printing press was first invented) and the fact that it takes us a while to find our feet with new technologies – their initial uses may seem frivolous (think LOL cats).  ‘The scientific revolution wasn’t created by the printing press, it was created by scientists’ who needed openness and speed for peer review – while the printing press was the right medium, books were the wrong tool, and the scientific journal and the concept of transparency and peer review were created to solve the long time to press disadvantage of books.

Open source developers, says Shirky, are “our invisible college … not for more arguments but for better arguments.” Proprietary software represents feudalism, says Shirky, open source software represents democracy, ‘because when you adopt a tool, you adopt the management philosophy embedded in that tool’ (get your own, take it or leave it, this is how it is versus collaborate, use and share freely). And when you have ‘co-operation without co-ordination [that is, a collective and collaborative approach rather than a hierarchical one] you start to see communities form that are enormously large and complex.’ And he illustrates this compellingly with two graphics: one illustrating proprietary software, which looks like an IBM org chart from the 1960s, the other detailing the interactions between people working on an open source project, which looks chaotic. The open source technique used for Ruby Rails, says Shirky, can be applied to democracies – and to the development of law, as it was during the 21st C copyright reform debate in the US, where people used open source software to experiment with the political ramifications of the proposed legislation (just after 13′ in the video).

The collaborative method is cheap, large-scale and can be messy, but the bigger problem is power – and by this he means, I think, the reluctance of those who have power to share it, even for a few moments. I think he’s bang on here – whenever we talk about referendums in the political sense you have a group of people demanding that their voices be heard, that the issue be settled democratically. This is immediately followed by the institutional response of Old Skool politicians, who talk about how much it’s going to cost to have a referendum, etc., and fall back on, ‘you elected us to represent you, you get to vote every two [three, four, five] years, get out of our way and let us do the job you elected us to do and we’ll let you have your say again at election time.’ If the Occupy and Idle No More movements have taught us anything, I’m hoping it’s that once every election is no longer often enough, but we’ll see how that goes, won’t we?

Transparency in government is now the norm, says Shirky (as a result of the disruptive technologies we’ve had at our disposal for decades now, which led to a radically changed society). But, says Shirky, ‘transparency is openness in only direction.’ And he’s absolutely right: transparency, like mainstream media of the 20th C, is basically 1:many communication: I make the information available to you in various media; you choose to avail yourself of it if you like but that’s where it ends. But collaboration is a radical new form of two way transparency where everyone knows – and can see – what everyone else is thinking and doing.

We have collaboration tools – can we use them? asks Shirky. I think the more important question is, Will we use them to create a better, fairer world for ourselves?

Or will our elected representatives continue to cling to an outmoded form of or pretence at democracy that ultimately leads to revolution (bloody or merely electoral)?

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