2021-01-17 20:00:00 +0000

thinking and writing about openness

Dear all,

So much for using this blog! Sorry about the long break. Between graduate school and the pandemic, I’ve been struggling to keep up with writing regularly for anything not directly related to work and research.

The funny thing about having a blog during times of Twitter, Instagram, Medium, Substack, and TinyLetter is that blogging feels distinctly like speaking into the abyss. What role do they play these days? There’s no ready-set audience, no possibility of payment, no algorithmic recommendation system. There’s no comment section for feedback. No google ad-words. Just me and my lonely CMS, writing into/at the digital abyss.

Yet, there’s something that I really like about this space. It feels like my own little patch of the world wide web. I guess in a lot of ways, it feels like a digital garden, something that I own in a digital world populated by proprietary platforms. I’m currently building one for thoughts that aren’t blog-worthy, to do open ethnography and live fieldnotes for anyone who might be interested (stay tuned!).

I’ve been thinking about this “open” approach to writing. From where I stand, it has three problems.

The first is an obvious one – why do these musings have to be public in the first place?

I struggle with this one the most. When listening to a podcast about Life by Algorithms, a new book by C. Besteman and H. Gusterson, the authors were pretty bleak. “The age of privacy is over,” they said. Does this mean that the age of private thoughts or private acts are over, too? Do the photos that I took of my grandmother mean anything, when I don’t share them with her? Or with anyone else at all?

The pressure to join social platforms and to live in a public way is itself well-documented. Because the majority of social and public life is now on proprietary platforms, especially during the pandemic, and because influencers have shown time and time again how fame on the internet can lead lead to fame in real life, more than ever, sharing our lives in public feels like a way of manifesting social connections. Recording our lives seems like a way of connecting with strangers and friends in real time, or perhaps even creating new income streams and economic opportunities. In other words: the pressure for everyone to become a kind of digital influencer is very real!

Despite the hope that this perspective brings, I can’t stop thinking about this by Caroline Busta. She writes about what counterculture looks like in the age of the internet, and how we’re more likely to see countercultural work as anonymous and local rather than anything done in public, let alone on social media. Because all aspects of our social lives are intrinsically tied to an attention economy, one where a few dominant for-profit platforms benefit off of both the critics and the consumers, would keeping my thoughts to myself be the most effective (and least-destructive) way to reflect? Are there alternatives?

This leads to my second set of critiques, because this kind of privacy is often associated with secrecy. In an era of transparency and open knowledge, not-sharing has a distinctly negative connotation. Despite increasing calls for data privacy and protection, which are usually looked at in direct opposition to “open” ethics, I usually tend to get a little stuck.

Do thoughts made out in the open actually makes us more accountable to them? Does it actually facilitate rigorous thought? Transparency? Does it have any positive effects at all?

Discussions about the effects of openness are usually transposed upon the open data movement, which began in the 2000s as a means to help make governments and organizations more transparent and accountable. I recently wrote an op-ed for the Graduate Institute communications team about this, and how it has created an uneven landscape: where some have enacted radically open and accountable policies, while others have remains almost entirely unaccountable.

The open ethic has also turned into an effective business model, especially in the world of software, where volunteers and other contributors have been able to build upon proprietary software and iterate coding ideas and resources countless times. This is part the reason why we’ve seen such an explosion in the space, but also what’s now creating problems about who maintains what’s now become the internet’s informational infrastructure.

But when I expand outside of these two applications, I’m caught in a catch-22. While anthropologists and many others have written extensively about the tensions behind the ‘open’ and ‘transparent’ ethic, many others have been actively working on solutions to this problem (and ironically – aren’t usually as visible as the former), something that I wrote about in on the Frictionless Fellows blog. These critiques, that ‘openness’ can disguise power in different different ways, are absolutely valid.

Furthermore, I’m not sure what role free labor plays within all of this. While the open source software movement is confronting the difficulty of this business model and the foundation it set for the movement, the wider sphere of “open” data projects is largely funded by the public sector, not private. On the other hand, the “open economy” of the gig workers is largely associated with precarity. Where do I place myself in all of this, when unpaid writing is more common than ever, and while paid writing adds boundaries to who can access it? How do I balance the unpaid labor that “pure” open-ness seems to require, without falling into the kind of precarity that it ultimately seems to lead to on an individual level?

Yet, there is so much I have learned from open resources, and the people that put their thoughts out into the open. I can’t tell you the number of times I have stumbled upon Twitter accounts or personal blogs where the open and honest writing of their authors has informed my own thought process and point of view. has been deeply informative. These resources encouraged me to compile my own list of resources for people to use, and hopefully give back to the plethora of free and open knowledge that I’ve definitely been able to benefit from.

Maybe this is where my latent idealism seeps back into my point of view. Despite all its faults, we have never existed in a better time to actually engage with different publics on the internet, and experiment with new ways of collectivising people online and in real life. Yes, the fear of replicating your own world view (false consensus) or of having friends that are exactly like yourself (homophily) is very real, but if we can find better ways to negotiate difference, maybe the “open” ethic can help us to bridge the gap between public trust and interpersonal accessibility.

This leads to my final set of questions. How do balance the positive aspects of the open ethic, alongside the negative impacts of proprietary platforms?

This is something I’m interested in understanding, so I don’t really have any answers as it currently stands. On the social network side of things, decentralized platforms are increasingly trumpeted as an alternative to the current model. While these ideas are promising, I’m skeptical, especially after watching Silicon Valley (I know, I know!). This is because both radical transparency and privacy-first decentralization come with their own issues. The same systems that enable “openness” and/or “privacy” can also enable the inverse of their original intentions. Open source software has rising security concerns, especially after the Heartbleed incident, where backdoors were built into a software and its subsequent updates. Telegram, which is a safe haven for privacy-advocates, is also a central organizing platform for the alt-right movement. In an era of the Panama and Paradise papers – but also an era of protest photography, the role of privacy takes on enormously complex and differentiated roles depending on context. I’m not sure where I stand amongst these questions, let alone understand them.

So why am I still writing on this blog?

To be honest, I’m still not sure. All of these thoughts are very much underdeveloped. But in any case, I hope that these resources and writings can be useful to someone, if they ever end up stumbling upon this page.