Open Tech vs Open Society

In the digital debate, sometimes words have different meanings from what we may be used to. For example: “open” actually means “free” (as in beer). That may sound strange, but think about concepts like open source and open networks. The former means free software (made by volunteers), the latter means free internet access. Open is in itself an appealing proposition: it’s nice to get an invite that says “open house” for example. The opposite – closed – sounds suspicious, unwelcoming, even jealous. So much for free association, semantics can be confusing. While we may celebrate an open society, just as much as we like open technology, these have nothing to do with one another. The open society means things like democracy, freedom of speech, free elections, freedom of association, transparent government, legal certainty, and human rights. It is what democracies have built in the form of institutions and legislation over centuries and Europe prides itself on being the world leader. In fact, it’s sa concept that is very close to civilization (which is very much connected to the idea of Europe).

Open technology is open in quite a different sense: it means databases are open for input, that application program interfaces (API:s) allow software to exchange data between programs, that the cables are accessible for different kinds of information. In open source, it means that anyone can continue to work on software that others have built. This kind of open has a lot of merits, this webpage is built with open source technology for example (WordPress). But open tech has nothing to do with the open society. It may be a banal statement, but there is no shortage of claims that “keeping the internet open” is crucial for democracy and freedom of speech. That is confusing one kind of open with the other. Open technology may be function of an open society, but there is nothing to say that open technology is a guarantee or a precondition for an open society. In fact, the opposite may be true: if open technology means that democracy and rule of law must stay out, in fact those functions that are the foundation of the open society are absent from the digital realm. That is the opposite of the open society, perhaps not anarchy, but a case of might makes right: those who own the technology and the networks write the rules. Not the people.