Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 139, Nov 2015

“Open” - in what end?

A very simple image I once encountered in my education was to think of the design process as a pipe. What you put in one end is transformed throughout the journey into a result, a product or service. The teacher emphasized that you could point the pipe towards an end, a higher aim, or simply let it rest in the direction of all other pipes. And you had to make sure you put useful stuff into the inlet, well-researched user studies or thorough analysis, to make sure you got good output at the outlet. If you put crap in, you most surely get crap out at the other end.

The image of the pipe is of course far too simple to tell us much about design. Some work may be fairly straightforward, but most design processes are confusing, foul and dirty, perhaps more like malformed sewage systems than straight and clean water pipes. Yet the metaphor may help us think of design and the real issues at stake as we try to open up design to become a more democratic and engaging endeavor.

Over the last decades there has been a lot of discussions concerning “open design”, or collaborative forms of design processes, where participation and user-engagement are key strategies for opening and disseminating design. Most seem to agree that users should have a stake in the design, and the usefulness of this engagement seems obvious in many fields. The question mostly seems to concern the quantity and quality of the various forms of open engagement: what kind of openness is best for your specific type of issue?

Openness is in many cases an obviously good characteristic of a design process: it allows for direct feedback from users, quick prototyping and iterations, free use and distribution, as well as continuous improvement, engaging users and dividing ownership so anyone can “scratch their own itch”, as programming guru and open source proponent Eric Raymond has suggested. And of course the whole idea of a more “democratic” design, where the design brief and market-forces don’t set the whole agenda, is great, especially if users get to take part in the decision-making around the design of their everyday.

My question concerns the open process itself, and once again I think of the process as a pipe. If we hold up this conduit for closer examination I would like to examine it from two angles, firstly; to what end is it open, and secondly; in what end is it open?

So firstly; design is open to what end? What is the purpose of a platform being open? It may be open in order to promote co-production and crowd-sourcing, that is, participation and a sharing of skills and labor. Or it may be open for a wide dissemination of the results, making the outcome, software or hardware, free to use, copy, modify, and redistribute, that is, making it open source.

But a central question emerging from this endeavor concerns who controls the process. That is, even if the process may be “open” there are still a lot of mechanics of control within the social situation and condition of the collaboration itself. Even if something is “open” it usually means more a “laisser-faire” mentality, rather than a real intervention to address the problems of the social distribution of agency. That is, being “open” does not necessarily promote equity or justice, but rather, an open process may indeed amplify social injustices.

For example, if the openness of a project means all should work on a voluntary basis, it mostly means getting participants who don’t work full time in one or two jobs, or have kids to take care of and feed, etc. The voices and skills of participants may tilt the project towards the needs and ideas of a group who is already empowered, who is already “on top of the game” – even if the result is freely distributed and open. The result may simply not match or have any direct need for the elderly, migrants, people with disabilities, or people working double shifts in order to feed their families. These groups may be hard to attract to the open lab, but may be the ones mostly in need of the voluntary help from the design community.

Indeed, the very ideology of DIY and “making” may feed into the marginalization of the already powerless, rather than empower them. The very narrative of the “maker” community has a tendency to see the individual as an entrepreneur or self-employed factory, feeding into current processes of the neoliberal economy, undermining solidarity, loyalty, and social commons, as a general narrative of the movement asks the question “what’s in it for me?”

So secondly: design is open in what end? Many forms of open source licenses, of open hardware or open code or content, guarantee that the outcome of a process is open and stays open. If we put in open source code in the inlet of the tube, the outcome at the outlet needs to be open and free too. The process, the journey within the tube is open for influence, usage, and future reproduction. These forms of licenses aim to assure the previous as well as the new labor used to build the new code or content stays open in the public realm.
But what is getting more apparent over the last years is that most open platforms, of compatible codes and modules, may indeed be open to use and reproduction, but not open for co-ownership or influence from the participants or users. No matter how much time or efforts you as a user invest into working for an open platform, you are still not offered any real control over the platform itself. The “open” platform is like an unlocked factory: you can work in there, buy your machines and tools, but the critical infrastructure is still controlled by the factory owner.

Who controls the platform, the inlet of the pipe, and who really gains on my production on that specific platform? Take for example many of the open hardware platforms of today, such as mechatronics-kits and 3d-printers. Many of these platforms have amazing supportive communities, and founders who spend huge amounts of time sustaining and facilitating the collaborative ecologies that sustain these creative environments. But whereas I get to control the result of my own work, and add it to the open library of the platform, I have no or very limited control over the platform itself. I have submitted to the voluntary regulations of the platform, and thus relinquished my claims for any co-ownership.

The outlet of the pipe is open, the outcomes shared, but the inlet is strictly controlled and not open at all. The hand that holds the pipe, who did the original input, has a tight grip of that end.

Thus for things to be truly “open” we will need to be more conscious about the whole pipe of design, the inlet and outlet of the pipe, as well as towards where the pipe points. “Open” is thus much more than a fun way to build stuff together, it asks us one of philosophy’s most fundamental question: what constitutes the good civic life?

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