On Openness and its Limits

Openness is a consequence of adopting a network metaphor for our societies. It is limited by what facilitates healthy functioning groups and individuals. That’s the balance to strike.

Cognitive Edge Business Network Europe
Vibrant connected network, aka society

Open Everything
There seems to be a conference on Open [Your Fav Topic Here] just about every day somewhere. Open Data, Open Access, Open Economy, Open Design, Open Source, Open Manufacturing, Open Innovation, Open Government, Open Science, Open Knowledge, Open Courseware, Open Corporates, Open Hardware, Open Energy: Open Anything and Open Everything.

For those not easily adapting to change, this is good news: Open is clearly a hype, so it can be ignored without peril, and it can be fought by denouncing it as empty hype.
For those embracing Open, this is also good news as it seems openness is a worthy goal in itself, a panacea, on the brink of going mainstream. Monster killers and monster embracers alike are missing something I think.

To me something more profound is happening on the middle ground between those two extremes.

New infrastructure begets new metaphors
Internet and mobile communications are a pervasive new infrastructure. They connect people, not geographic endpoints (as all other infrastructures do), and do so instantaneous and globally. New infrastructures push their principles as dominant metaphors on other areas. Railroads pushed ‘railroad time‘ upon our daily lives and rhythms. Internet is pushing the network metaphor upon us.

That network metaphor impacts our organizations, work, and our social life. The network metaphor is making itself felt offline just as much as online. It increases complexity through its myriad of newly created pathways and feedback loops, and thus increases the need for resilience of any given node.

Networks necessitate Open
The network metaphor necessitates openness: in a network you must share, you must be visible and responsive, otherwise you don’t exist and you will not be engaged with. Dark nodes in a network, those that don’t share or even announce their presence, are treated as damage in a network. Traffic, i.e. interaction with other nodes, gets routed around them. Dark nodes are simply ignored. To be part of the network a node must share, must allow others to connect and see what it’s doing. If you don’t open up to the world, you don’t exist to others. If you don’t open up, you will not be resilient, you will not be able to deal with increased complexity.

Open is not a hype, it is a prerequisite for, as well as a consequence of, a networked society, induced by our new infrastructure.

Open is not limitless however. It is bounded in order to deal with complexity and by our own humanity.

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Being closed for good reasons.

Openness has limits in complexity
Dealing with complexity is balancing being very open to the world, with maintaining strict boundaries. Lines in the sand, that you don’t allow to be violated without consequences. Bumping into those boundaries will not feel very open at all to those doing the bumping. I am very welcoming to visitors in our home, but you will be made to leave when you don’t respect it is indeed my home. While the network necessitates openness, the resulting complexity of global connectedness necessitates boundaries at the same time. Without setting boundaries a node is fully transparent, which makes it just as invisible to the network as a dark node. It is the difference between Project X and the open invitation to my birthday unconference.

Openness has limits in human group dynamics
In many interactions being shielded from others is needed to get somewhere. If something makes you feel vulnerable (some learning situations, negotiations, idea generation etc come to mind), you can’t deal with it in a very public setting, but need a space in which there’s more privacy. It is a deliberate short reprieve from the social pressures that would otherwise inhibit you in a negative way. Results of that seclusion, or the fact that you are entering such a more closed off space for a while, could very well be open.

Healthy communities of practice can be characterized by the way they deal with rhythms, spaces, evolution, value, excitement vs. feeling secure, internal and external perspectives, and multiple levels of engagement (from lurking to leading and back).

Openness can foster a wider variety of levels of engagement (as that is an aspect of networks), bring diversity of perspectives (idem), bring excitement, better allow evolution by exposure, and create more value for all involved.

Openness however needs to be limited when there’s a need for more opaque and smaller spaces, and to make group members feel secure enough to engage. It needs to be limited where it diminishes value for all involved e.g. when it dissolves a groups cohesion and identity or that of its members.

Openness is the default, to be limited by our human needs
Openness needs to be the default: we live in a networked world and open sharing is what makes networks function. Openness is limited by our humanity, for the health of individuals, groups and communities. That limitation ideally is temporary and clearly demarcated.

Pedro's Play Session
Open and bounded simultaneously: my 2010 birthday unconference