Home Only Openness Can Power The Next Wave Of Human Progress

Only Openness Can Power The Next Wave Of Human Progress

Mitchell Baker is contributing as part of #TheOpenAgenda—a campaign by Telefónica Digital to provoke debate around the benefits of an open philosophy for digital, technology and innovation. Get involved with the debate using #TheOpenAgenda on Twitter or view more at www.theopenagenda.com

When the Web was developed, it wasn’t particularly planned out, it wasn’t an incremental change to an existing product, it was something quite new, and became an unplanned mass movement. We’re all fortunate; because the Web emerged from an academic environment, it came out very open and free.

The Web was a new way of looking at information, a technology with lots of possibilities. Now we can look back and see how fast it’s grown, how different it’s become, how many changes have happened and what new ideas have occurred. All of that is because we’ve been able to draw on all of human ingenuity to try new things, not just one central idea determining what we could try.

Openness is important, not only for the Web and technology but also for the human experience. Openness provides the ability to set the rules for ourselves or experiment and work to create a better experience. Openness is critical for the human experience, critical to problem solving—and if you view the problems facing the globe and the human population today we need the ability to solve problems. The fact is we need choice, if the options or technology are closed the decision has been already made for us and this directly impacts our lives.

For human experience to be open and free, the underlying technology needs to enable it. That’s why fighting for an open Web is important.

The Web’s Forces Against Openness

Open vs. closed is a dichotomy in many areas of life; many systems move from open to closed or strike a balance between the two. The Web is no different.

In the short-term there is sometimes great value, or perceived value, to centralized services. In the long run, though, as systems become more closed it becomes very hard to change something that no longer works optimally. The Web is subject to a number of forces—both commercial and governmental—looking to impose control and to crack down on its openness.

As the Web has become a critical part of daily life for billions of people, we face a different environment from that when Tim Berners-Lee invented it. The Web is no longer a purely academic system where openness comes naturally but one where huge societal and economic issues are at stake. With this new environment come new threats to the Web’s flexibility and openness.

More Mobile, More Problems, More Opportunity

The world is going mobile. We’re accessing and building the internet and its content in an environment increasingly defined by Apple and Google with their closed ecosystems and controlled app stores. Google makes some source code of Android available, but Android is essentially not open. All the APIs are designed by Google, and Google controls the direction of the technology. The source code is available, but often only after products are shipped. Apple has virtually locked down iOS, it is closed and centralized.

Experience in a closed environment varies—there are many that like it. However, over time closed systems tend to decline. It is often forgotten that in the early days people loved the integration of Internet Explorer into the Windows operating system. But due to its lack of competition, its development slowed and innovation ground to a halt. The Web stagnated until the Mozilla Foundation launched, then eventually other browsers such as Safari and Chrome came onto the scene.

This created an environment where businesses, entrepreneurs and developers could innovate on the Web and led to the further development and creation of platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Twitter which have come to rewrite the world we live in.

We mustn’t make the same mistakes we made with the desktop with the mobile Web. We must not allow the Web to be taken out of people’s and creator’s hands and let it be defined by a few organisations.

The Vision Of The Web

The big Internet companies have a great responsibility to the Web—they represent a huge threat but also a great opportunity to its future. Some will, and have, adopted a closed mind set, shutting their platform and properties off and using any means possible—including lobbying and passing laws—to maintain control and ensure others can’t compete.

But others have adopted an open philosophy—because it’s in their nature, their leaders’ nature or because it makes economic or business sense. They are shifting because they see the possibilities and are moving into opportunities that are more based on openness. That requires more creativity as you’re building something new. All of the big internet incumbents have this choice before them.

If we want maximum innovation and flexibility to create and use technology we need an open system. If there are restrictions or the next great idea needs permission from a global set of stakeholders, each with their own agenda and interests, progress will be stifled and the customer experience will suffer. Innovation and creativity can only truly thrive in an environment that is open—that is why the Web as a platform needs to remain this way to ensure ideas can sprout and then spark the next wave of human progress.

We all, as consumers and creators, have the most influence and responsibility over how the Web will develop in the future. Whether it is turning our back on restrictive platforms and services or pressurising governments to take action, we are all citizens of the Web. We ultimately define its future.

Image courtesy of Flickr user SchuminWeb via CC.

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