Is open always better than closed?
I went to an exhibition in the Tropenmuseum called Dono’s code, by the contemporary artist Heri Dono (1960). The first of his many politically charged works was Fermentation of Mind. I sneakily took a picture of it because it was quite impressive. It displayed a classroom filled with heads mounted on mechanical arms. The heads were plugged into a electronic book-like contraption in which there was a cassette player, some circuitry and a speaker repeating the same audible message. (sounded like sheep blatter to me). All the heads nodded yes while holding their eyes closed. For me it symbolises the way politics can abuse communicational technology to ferment the minds of the public, the way propaganda and brain washing of the public mind is envisioned by Heri Dono.
This does not say that I see technology as inherently evil or as a propaganda vehicle, but I do acknowledge it being susceptible to power abuse by politics. One has only to look at the past to see this. I also acknowledge the way mass media can be used to influence public opinion. Dono’s class as depicted above was in fact not so far from the truth at certain points in history.
That’s why I like the internet so much. The possibilities offered by the internet and web culture are immense, in stead of nodding heads we can actually interact with our information source and critically analyse it. We can put our own messages out there as I am doing right now. More importantly, we can resist other messages by organizing within this network.
That takes me to my next point; The future of social media. I read a view interesting pieces regarding this subject and immediately one major prediction regarding the future caught my attention: open instead of closed.Gerd Leonhard talked about it on PICNIC ’09, Mike Laurie blogged about in in Mashable and David Chartier did the same in Wired.
All of the above mentioned predict a future system in which there are no more boundaries. The closed, gated social networks will eventually evolve into one worldwide social network, with one login and one infrastructure. The “walls will come crumbling down”. Google has already kicked off the race towards openness with the announcement of Google Wave, one platform that supports ALL social media, an open platform with real-time communications and without the boundaries of separate logins and separate communities. Within this one network everybody can share content and all social networks will merge into one.
All theorists/futurists writing about this possible future contrast open with closed, sure I prefer open in many instances, but what does this one open network also imply?. One owner? One system of moderation? One message? To put in short: How do we know we won’t end up in Doni’s classroom again?
Open does have a more positive connotation then closed, but we have to critically analyse the consequences of opening our social network gates. Some walls can be quite good and wanted, like the wall between me and the advertising industry trying to chart my preferences with utmost precision. Or the wall between the many competing social networks with separate owners and thus separate financial interests. Sure, we have numerous logins and separate social networks, but that also means diversity of owners and separate business interests. In the current situation we have networks that are still connected trough the same infrastructure but not connected by economic interest or owned by one interest, all are in a way competing for attention and members. This would change if one social network erases all these separate entities. I wonder what corporation will own the one global network that is predicted by these futurist and media critics, and more importantly: I wonder what this means for the revolutionary potential of the internet. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that having the worlds social network interests embedded within one network, owned by one corporation could mean trouble. This could mean that this one corporate form has control over the infrastructure, insight in the content, moderation power, and so on. This has the potention of undermining all revolutionary power by placing the network within corporate commercial infrastructure. Could this be commodification 2.0 ? All revolutionary potential nipped in the bud by personalizing of commodities to fit the short term revolutionary ‘needs’ of all members in this one network so they’ll keep their eyes closed like in Dono’s artwork? I won’t go as far as saying that will happen, but we do have some serious thinking to do.
We have to critically examine the dangers of realizing one social network. The way open is placed in contrast of closed invites us to think of it as a preferred state, a better condition, but in that same way I can place diversity against uniformity or economic competition against monopoly. If open also implies all of this, then I’ll prefer closed.