The Whig interpretation of Information: Is open source inevitable? I

The following is an attempt to trace some of the outlines of an element of the ideology of technology, it is not a detailed sociological analysis. The standard political model favoured by many interested in information technologies point to the supposed inevitability of openness. It is a techno-libertarianism that hovers over all discussion, our standard right-on refrain. Certainly it can be regarded as a goal, but more along the lines of a regulating ideal, rather than a Five Year Plan. This is a polite way of saying we don’t back any of this up with action. The argument for openness is in its essence a historical one, which notes that once there had been an information technology that somebody attempted to control, there followed a breakdown of this control, with a free and open exchange following. I draw a parallel with Herbert Butterfield’s

thesis of the Whig interpretation of history, which recasts past history with a view to the present. Accordingly, an apparent chain of progress can be easily discerned from the chaos of the past, if you know what you are looking for. Such is the confirmation bias. This, however, misses the structures through which information is made available, those other technologies that have an influence – and there are many of them. In one set of terms this is how information and indeed an entire information technology is encoded. We need to confront the problem of context.

Reading the above outline (and I also think of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon mentioned previously) we must see that not all information is (or should be?) available as the ideal might hold. Indeed, openness is not a default. Were it so, should codes from history spontaneously decay into sense via some entropy of coherence? Openness is not a default because encoding is a technology. So too must we consider its recoding into openness (not decoding, which is then a contradiction in these terms). The myth of openness is based in reality, as all myths are, but it forgets TANSTAAFLthere ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. This is a governing principle of information theory as much as it is thermodynamics. According to the model I am proposing to dismiss, communication works as follows. whereby we speak openly to communicate a message, and then write this down so it is intelligible to both sides, and then it is encrypted. What this picture (or straw man, if I am totally off the wall) does not allow is that which a thoroughgoing techno-functionalist position can account for, namely the following. Speech is a form of encoding, long accepted and widely available, but a technology nonetheless. So too is writing. So too is transforming that writing into a second level of sense, namely an encoded (recoded according to my view) piece of writing, though of course it need not be writing. Codes do not degrade, they are broken. We invent a technology to extract sense from the encoded text, and thus we make it appear as though we have reversed the arrow of time, stepping into a past where the message we seek had not yet been put into that secret code which cloaks it. It almost appears as though we got that free lunch. We did not. If encryption is but another form of encoding. Encryption is as much a technology as is any other encoding. Openness too is a technology.

Is this an invalid conflation of discussing open source in the same breath as encryption? I do not believe so, and I do not compare them say they are equivalent, who cares. I do not propose indifferentism. I am saying that because there is no arrow of inevitable openness, one must actively fight for openness (with open source but the latest example of this).Pace the egotism of Julian Assangewe cannot have a knee-jerk ideology where we have a right to know everything at all times. Sissela Bok’s Secrets from 1983 (currently out of print, but a contemporary New York Times review gives a fair outline) examines the issues surrounding secrecy, and notes that openness in the realm of science (which is broadly speaking where we might place the open source movement) has quite a different function to the role of secrecy in investigative journalism, whistleblowing, undercover police operations, and secrets of state (these and other issues each get their own chapter).

Open source as an idea as well as a movement needs to realise that because it is inextricably linked with trade and corporate secrecy (another chapter of Bok’s), then for this to be more than a flash-in-the-pan, it must become part of an ecology of openness, interacting with problems such as copyright, and the knowledge economyIndeed, regarding the former, there has been for some time an awareness of this, found in the idea of copyleft, which enacts a philosophy of pragmatic idealism, as outlined by Richard Stallman. This is not the time for micropolitics, but for a statement of intent, a declaration whereby we might make our unthought and unspoken assumptions real. One more effort, technologists, if you would become opens source!
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