Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Open Standards in the Digital Age


The architects of the twenty-first-century digital age proclaim that openness is their foundational value. Their work is exemplified in movements that embrace open science, open access publishing, open source software, open innovation business strategies, open education, and so on. President Barack Obama’s “Open Government Initiative,” announced on his first day in office in 2009, captured the collective spirit of these efforts: “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

The ideology of openness, as it is articulated and practiced in the early twenty-first century, would have surprised the critic and historian of technology Lewis Mumford. In his 1964 essay, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” he wondered: “Why has our age surrendered so easily to the controllers, the manipulators, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics?” The
advocates of openness, however, have not surrendered so easily. Instead, they sense the dawn of a radical, almost utopian transformation in which power hierarchies are flattened, secret activities are made transparent, individuals are empowered, and knowledge itself is democratized. They welcome innovation, thrive on diversity and change, insist on the sanctity of autonomy and freedom, and have an unqualified disdain for authority, restrictions, and gatekeepers.

In the most general sense, “open” conveys independence from the threats of arbitrary power and centralized control.

The technological foundations that sustain this vision are digital: the Internet, the Web, and cellular telephone networks. These technologies together create a communication infrastructure that has the potential to evade the ability of established authorities to control, censor, or ignore. For individuals, “open” is shorthand for transparent, welcoming, participatory, and entrepreneurial; for society at large, “open” signifies a vast increase in the flow of goods and information through a global, market-oriented system of exchange. In the most general sense, it conveys independence from the threats of arbitrary power and centralized control. It is a discourse that speakers of the English language have found easy to adopt, given the common use of expressions such as “openminded,” “open to the public,” and “open for business.” “Openness” thus describes a marriage of technology and ideology and a fusion of technology, democracy, and entrepreneurial capitalism.

Although readers may believe that openness is inextricably linked to digital technologies born in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the purpose of this book is to explain the historical forces – creations and legacies of a pre-digital age – that forged our twenty-first-century open world. Some of these historical forces already have been the subject of a large number of academic and popular studies. Whether they describe the “rise of the network society,” the advent of the “fl at world,” or the dawn of the “information age,” many of these studies tend to celebrate American-style high-tech globalization. But the praise is not universal: critics rightly note that the world is not flat, that power asymmetries persist between various nodes in the network society, and that traditional bureaucracies such as national governments and industrial corporations have in many ways gained in strength and not withered away.

Rather than join the chorus as a critic or champion of globalization in the twenty-first century, I pursue a historical objective in Open Standards and the Digital Age: to explain how this state of affairs came into being. There already exists a conventional view, a theory of causation that permeates the literature: new technologies drive social change. A typical expression of this view may be found in Andrew Shapiro’s 1999 book, The Control Revolution, whose argument was aptly summarized by its subtitle: “How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know.” Another example may be found in the distinctive prose of journalist Thomas Friedman, who referred to new information technologies such as personal computing, Internet telephony, and wireless devices as “steroids” that are “amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners.”

The consequences of all of this turbocharged flattening, of course, depend on one’s point of view: when Google complained in 2010 that the Chinese government was censoring search results from google.cn, the Chinese newspaper Global Times defended China’s right to protect itself from American “information imperialism.” Google’s high-minded defense of the freedom of expression was, the Global Times declared, a ruse – a “disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy.” The inherent contradictions
and tensions bundled within terms such as “openness” and “transparency” have been further exposed by activists such as Chelsea Manning, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden who put powerful institutions in uncomfortable positions by publicizing data that were intended to be secret. In other words, openness (and its ally, transparency) is easy to promote in rhetoric but more complicated to adhere to in practice.

One comes away from the popular accounts of high-tech globalization with an oversimplified, linear, and somewhat deterministic view of the relationship between technology and society: for better and for worse, the Internet and digital technologies have thrust an unprecedented era of openness on us. A more sophisticated and nuanced interpretation has, somehow, failed to find its way into the mainstream, even though the foundations for such an interpretation have been laid over the past fifty years by communities of historians, sociologists, and political scientists who study science and technology. Recent scholars, many of them contributing or responding to the theoretical framework of the “social construction of technology,” emphasize the ways that technological artifacts, networks, and systems can embody and advance the cultural and political values of their makers. This literature, taken as a whole, has sharpened our understanding of the ways that technologies and societies are mutually constitutive – or, as historian Thomas Hughes summarized, how technological systems are “both socially constructed and society shaping.”

To read the full excerpt, click here.

Latest Comments

Have your say!