Open, Closed, 1984 and the Evil Empire

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ben Kepes

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On my recent Gillmor gang slot I spent time talking with Steve Gillmor and John Taschek about open data, the risks of a few all-powerful social networks and how open data can drive potential benefits for all.

In what was I suspect an effort to create a provocateur outside of themselves, Gillmor and Taschek engaged me in a discussion that reflected both on the recent arguments about the risks of an ultra powerful social media cartel, and a perspective on the democratization that the iPad is bringing to the world.

It seems to me that my two buddies on this call have been busy quaffing on Silicon Valley kool aide. Gillmor in particular waxed poetic about the iPad and the stratospheric success it’s seeing in the marketplace. I call BS on that.

Yes I was in attendance at Salesforce’s DreamForce event last year and heard the CEO of Burberry wax poetic about how the social enterprise is transforming her business. But that simply doesn’t cut it for me – my view is that the iPad (and other devices but I focus on the iPad as a foil to the fan boys exuberance) is a proxy for the real benefits of accessible data.

My perspective is simple – think of Joe Citizen who is a process worker for the Acme Widget Company. Joe spends his day on a large industrial machine, one that has been churning out widgets for decades.

Does it make a difference to Joe that the sales execs in the company have iPads? Well, beyond perhaps managing the output of the machine better and tailoring it to demand, the “iPad revolution” means nothing to Joe.

So what will actually make a difference in the real world? And why is Apple’s hegemony a threat to that?

What will make a difference is the web of things. That hallowed ground where data isn’t just about primarily visual devices creating and displaying information, but rather about a connected series of devices that feed countless pieces of data in a greater whole.

So Joe’s machine is connected, and constantly sends a stream of consciousness out to the ether about what it is doing. Joe’s machine also consumes a string of data from a myriad of different sources – raw material supplier’s machinery, inventory systems, sales systems, energy utility’s system – all with a view to making highly granular and incremental changes.

Apple’s hegemony is a threat to this ideal because it silos data in one operating system, tailored for one particular perspective on data consumption and creation. It’s also a risk because, as Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Any provider that has the virtual keys to the way people create, view and consume data is a potential vector for corruption. And I’m not just singling out Apple here – there are a number of other vendors that have the potential to shoehorn themselves into a position where their dominant position can be used for nefarious gain.

Open Standards and the API – Saviors in the Fight Against Evil

I am buoyed by the fact that a lot of people in different areas are fighting for “Open”, whatever open means to their particular area of interest. From the Open Cloud Initiative which aims to ensure consistency around the way cloud infrastructure is consumed and used, to Diaspora and its attempt (however viable that attempt may be) to create a different kind of social medium that doesn’t use people’s information for corporate gain.

I’m also buoyed by the very existence of the open API – a technology that forces the notion of data interchange to become real. Sure right now it’s too hard, and there are all manner of ways in which vendors manipulate what should be open to achieve their own aims, but the API is our equivalent of Excalibur – and it too has the ability to deliver us from evil.

As I said when talking to Taschek and Gillmor – the economic models are being rewritten, in a world where consumers don’t directly pay for a service but rather use it and have that very use converted into revenue by the provider, we need to change our thinking around the risks and threats of a kind of grand incumbency.

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may wax poetic about his vision of a utopian ideal where people are connected with others and his service facilitates the finding of meaning across the globe, that utopian ideal can easily be subverted.

You see utopias have a sneaky habit of changing into dystopias once they gain incumbency. George Orwell’s book 1984, and the real world example of communism in practice should be a warning to us about all of this. The process starts with but the best of intentions, making the world a better place for all.

But in the same way that Orwell’s elite quickly subverted this aim to one of gaining and holding power, so too could we see one of the technology incumbents – Apple, Facebook, Google or some as yet unknown – be put to purposes evil rather than good.

So next time we wonder aloud at how many amazing things an uber-powerful Facebook can deliver, we should think on those sage words of Lord Acton, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Cross-posted from Diversity

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