Monday, 8 August 2011

The virtues of openness

Over the past year, we’ve seen the growth of groups like WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec: these are groups bound together not by proximity or community but by the members’ shared values, in particular the value of openness. WikiLeaks published information that the group believes should be out in the open – the actions of those who represent the public: governments, militaries, and government representatives. Though Anonymous and LulzSec ostensibly hack and DDoS attack websites “for the lulz”, the groups actually have strong values concerning who and why they hack: as part of Operation AntiSec, attacks on SOCA and the US Department of Homeland Security were justified because of these governments’ efforts to “dominate and control our Internet ocean.” 

The actions of these groups are reactions – albeit, extreme reactions – to lack of openness on the Web. Although the Web is an amazing expanse of shared information, efforts to ‘dominate and control it’ are routine. The most extreme case is China’s Golden Shield Project – the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – which restricts access to the Web for the Chinese people. National and local governments worldwide keep information closed off from the public and, in the case of WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cables, can take websites down to prevent access to information.

For people in the West, the most everyday form of censorship occurs in work or school. Many employers and education institutions use software to block websites: to erect walls across the Web. The most frequently blocked websites are usually social networking websites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. – which employers and educators perceive as wastes of time. But there are other, more surprising banned websites: Stephen Abrams recently shared these lists.

Thanks to Alice Halsey for this image idea
In an educational environment, lack of openness can have a detrimental effect. From a library perspective, restricting Web access seriously restricts the research that students can do. As well as the quantity of research sources, lack of access can also impact the quality. When teaching information literacy, it’s important to get students to use the references and further links at the bottom of Wikipedia articles: in an environment where Wikipedia is available but the referenced material is blocked, it’s difficult to verify sources and ensure accurate information.

In employment, blocks on social networking websites can be equally detrimental. It’s true that time spent playing FarmVille or chatting on Facebook can be wasted time but social networking also has the potential for great professional development. Openness in a work context comes down to trusting your employees to do the right thing. Twitter, for example, can keep someone connected to a disparate community of like-minded people, can link to useful resources and ideas, and can provide a support and professional development network with projects like CPD23. Blocking social networking and indeed any other websites treats employees and students like children: it’s detrimental to their effectiveness in the workplace and to their engagement in an organisation. It’s interesting to note that none of the top 100 best companies to work for block social media websites.

In Education and the Social Order, Bertrand Russell talks about how infants instinctively “rage at any constriction of the limbs.” This instinct, he says, “is the basis of the love of freedom.” Russell says that constraint without reason leads to rage and rage leads to destruction. Conversely freedom and openness lead to fulfilment and happiness.

Humans desire openness: the freedom to access the shared inheritance of human information. A lack of openness – in terms of the Web or knowledge or whatever – is inimical to human creativity and this is why groups like Anonymous and LulzSec step up to defend openness so vociferously. Creativity requires access to a range of perspectives, dissemination of ideas, communication between individuals, collaboration between groups. These are all things that the Web can enable but which the blocking of websites prevents. Like fish growing to the size of their physical environments, human minds grow to the size of their mental environment. As far as possible, we should avoid restricting our mental environments and stop censorship of news, books, and websites.

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