Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Meaning of Open

I have been doing my best in recent weeks to drum up enthusiasm for creating an “open” economy. Here in Portland, I travel in both tech savvy and tech challenged circles. My experience has been that while the tech community really embraces “open” as a practice, the non-tech community seems a little bewildered. And what’s more, both communities seem to have confusion around applying the word “open” to anything currency-like. So here is my attempt at clearing the cobwebs.

At its heart, “open” is about creating a new commons. In medieval Europe, there were common grazing pastures in many settled areas. These “commons” were not owned by any person or entity, and were used by all the residents to graze their animals. For a variety of reasons, beginning in the late 13th century, these commons began to be “enclosed” by less-than-common interests. The “tragedy of the commons” refers to what happens when individuals over-exploit the commons, each in their own short-term best interests, to the detriment of the group’s long-term interests.

Since this period of time, a major political debate has existed about how to “govern” the commons. Left-leaning people usually think the government should be in control of the commons, and right-leaning people usually think private commercial interests should. Legitimate arguments abound on both sides of this debate. Conservatives argue that the government can’t be trusted, and that the free market is the best way to govern everything. Liberals argue that the government is the only defense against the havoc the free market can wreak. However, in both of these scenarios, the commons really doesn’t belong to us anymore.

In recent years, the commons has been mostly in the hands of a “them.” Whether that them is a government or a business, it is still a them we give up our sovereignty to. It took the development of software to remind us that there is a third way.

Since software is so darned complicated, it became very common among programmers to share bits of code. In fact, the only way much software is even possible at all is through sharing and recycling code that has already been written. Few in the coding community wanted to completely reinvent the wheel every time they sat down to write a new piece of software, so everyone benefited. Hence was born, “open source” (source as in “source code”).

This new kind of commons is different from the old kind since it is no longer tied to the physical world. A commons of land is finite and bounded. A commons of knowledge is neither.

Wikipedia is the most often cited example of this kind of knowledge commons. The Wikimedia Foundation does not take ownership of the content of wikipedia. The content belongs to everyone. Anyone can duplicate all of the content and set up a parallel service should they so choose. So while the Wikimedia Foundation may administer the site, fundamentally they are not a them. Should they start mishandling the site, a new site with identical content would pop up overnight. This openness keeps The Wikimedia Foundation honest, and working for the benefit of all. Compare that with government. Sure, if we’re lucky we can vote out a bad leader after four (or eight) years, but do we have the ability to change the agenda? Not really, and certainly not in a particularly dynamic or responsive way. Government is a them. Wikipedia is an us.

So how does this all relate to open currencies and open economies? Tom Greco refers to the space in which money operates as the “credit commons.” In other words, the credit commons is the common space in which we make rules for issuing and accepting IOUs. So far, this commons has been exclusively created, governed, and managed by a them, be it the government or banks.

Even well-meaning community currency practitioners are all too often a them in their own communities. When the them messes up, the community pays the price. Open currencies remove the need for a them. We will only need an us. Of course, there will still be people whose job it is to help maintain the currency, but they will have that job because they’re serving the community, not because the community has given over its sovereignty to a them.

If The MetaCurrency Project is based on openness, is it different from the open source CC software, Cyclos? Enormously. Remember Prodigy? Prodigy was a closed proprietary attempt at the World-Wide-Web. While it gained some traction in the early 90’s, there really wasn’t widespread adoption of the Internet until http and html enabled the open network that is the current World-Wide-Web. What would have happened if Prodigy had been open source, but still only operating in a closed network (like Cyclos)? Probably nothing. What enables the web is the ability for anyone to request any resource anywhere in the network using open standards of communication. Open. Who would use a service that only gave them access to some of the content that’s out there? Unfortunately, that has been the pattern in the community currency world. Creating lots of small, closed (and sometimes proprietary) networks. I would assert that until a comparable set of open standards exists for the community currency world, it is unlikely to be of any more significance than Prodigy.

That is what the MetaCurrency project and open currencies are all about.


mbauwens said...

I would really appreciate if you could expand on your critique of Cyclos, even for eventual republication at the P2P Foundation blog if possible. Thanks for considering it!


herestomwiththeweather said...

I think following up on Michel's question will help a lot of us still struggling with "open money". how is cyclos a closed network? if that's true, what steps does Cylcos need to take to open it?

mbauwens said...

I'm still interested, as it is the first time I had heard that critique, and I'd like to understand what you mean by it.


Arthur Brock said...
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Arthur Brock said...

Michel and Tom,

Alan and I have both posted new entries in response to this which should clarify the issue.

I believe the key issue is that even though the source code may be available to people, each instance of the program is run as a closed system, with a severe power imbalance between managers of the system (who can change rules, policies, fees, data, limit access, revoke accounts, etc.) and participants in the system (who have to operate within the constraints set by the managers and have no ability to represent their own accounts or to transport their account balances to another system if those managers fail them).

This is, of course, the normal way systems are built and managed. But we need a new P2P approaches to open technology to get truly open currencies.

Please see our more recent blog posts for the full answer.

mbauwens said...

Thanks, I will feature the new posts on the topic at our own blog,