Information is power. Those who hold power often keep information private, and with it make the decisions that affect our lives. There are many excuses for keeping such information closed, the most popular one of late is ‘security’, but there is also ‘cost’ – the information was expensive to acquire, and there for that cost must be recouped. For the most part we’ve accepted that companies should keep information private, indeed in the information economy their intellectual property is the only thing they’ve got. The US government realizes this and is putting all its weight behind getting countries to sign TRIPS plus bilateral agreements that lock down the IP regimes of the world. They do this because they couldn’t actually get the treaty they wanted passed in a world court. The US government is actually pretty good at releasing the intellectual property that they produce, computer code becomes public domain, as does most mapping data. But many other countries are more restrictive, and indeed the reality of how much information is actually available is laden with excuses of cost and security.
I don’t quite believe in absolute transparency, as I admit that there is some information that can cost lives if put in the wrong hands. But I strongly believe that as much information as possible should be available to all. This cuts to the core of my beliefs about open source – it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of people are not changing the code, what matters is the potential to do so. For me it’s a more ‘true’ democracy, the democracy we currently have in America feels like a big horse race every couple years. Politicians create an easy to digest message and attempt to sell it to the consumers/voters. It represents a deep cynicism about the citizens, that they aren’t worthy to make real, informed decisions themselves. Granted this is a much deeper problem – whose responsibility is it to seek out information? But I believe that a more ‘true’ democracy could encourage and educate the populace to make more informed decisions. And that transparency in all aspects of life is the way to get there. Showing all the cards makes people realize that their lives are not just controlled by forces outside of themselves. Our democracy is incredibly powerful, we the people can change the course of our history, but we don’t believe that we can, so we don’t. Decisions about urban planning, the shape of our daily lives, are made in random court buildings that people don’t even know that they can attend and have a strong voice. Barely a majority of the population turns out to vote every four years. In this ideal transparent world, not everyone would have all the issues completely under control, but they’d entrust others to, and they’d have the ability to look at the ‘source code’ for decisions. Imagine if all our politicians had to document every decision they made, if they were to actually make publicly available that the reason they supported Disney extending the copyright regime another 10 years was because they contributed a few thousand dollars to the re-election campaign.
I’ve felt a suspicion about transparency for awhile, indeed in the US we have a strong rhetoric about our open society, but in my life I’ve found it to be more image than reality, that our lives our controlled by others. And it’s not just something I’ve found, it’s the majority of the people, who accept that we actually have little say in where our world goes. I think I would have stayed cynical about the ability of simple transparency to change things, but my experiences with open source have given me a much stronger faith in it. Simple transparency with regards to the software one runs, a very minor thing in the grand scheme of things, has had an almost revolutionary impact on a multi billion dollar industry. It reorganizes how people work, how things are produced, into what I strongly feel is a more optimistic, cooperative model. I strongly believe this model is applicable to far more than software, though that’s a topic for another post. But at the root I believe it has the power to change how the world works, that its implications go to the root of politics and economics, and that it can be the basis of building a more cooperative, fair and just world.