Field of Dreams or Hotel California? Meditations on Open Source Culture by Christine Bush

[The following was originally posted as a video response exercise in the edX MOOC, Education: OpenKnowledge Changing the Global Course of Learning, offered in Fall 2014.]

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…

from As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII William Shakespeare

In this video, Ben Hammersley and others seem to be suggesting that frameworks do not have any impact or influence. It’s the Field of Dreams theory: “if you build it, they will come.” And, so the theory goes, if you build it Open even more will come. And since Facebook and Wikipedia have so very many users, they must have therefore changed the world. The frameworks of the “major landmarks of the internet” are just the stage, not the play itself.

I think frameworks have a tremendous impact on how, and what, is created within or upon them. I propose that a useful question in discussing Open is: what are the opportunity costs of using these frameworks?

We know the currency in play is consent. You have to agree to terms and conditions of use in order to step onto the stage of these platforms. Anything you say or do (with varying exceptions re: personally identifying information) will at the very least be recorded and analyzed by the framework. In the case of Facebook, your participation entails handing over a hefty amount of control over how your world-changing behavior may be re-purposed. And if you want to have greater access to other users of the framework? You consent to also handing over a different currency: the real kind. But in return for the almost wholesale commodification of your contributions, you have the chance to be liked, or even famous. You get to the change world and be liked for doing so: a bargain that seems too good to be true?

A recent article on BuzzFeed, “The Number Facebook Doesn’t Want You To See “, suggests it might be. This is a good example of how the unseen actors of these frameworks conflate the experience of being broadcast with that of being heard. “Yes, everybody’s there, but nobody is listening.” If true, this doesn’t seem like a qualitatively beneficial change for the production of knowledge. Perhaps there are other conflations at work here, such as the production of knowledge vs. the aggregation of content.

Wikipedia, by comparison, has no EULA or T&C for participation. All you need is a browser and you can start generating “the sum total of human knowledge.” So it is more “open”, yes? Not exactly. As anyone who has tried to make substantive contributions to a Wikipedia article will tell you, the opportunity costs are still there—just not explicitly spelled out up front. You will spend as much time, if not more, navigating complex, sometimes obscure, behavioral guidelines and fraught Talk page discussions as you will producing knowledge. Aggressive reversions and deletions of your contributions will frustrate you. And, if you’re a woman, you will have precious few peer collaborators. These are some of the many opportunity costs entailed by the framework at Wikipedia.

I am reminded of often quoted lyrics by Don Henley from The Eagles’ 1976 album, Hotel Califronia: “‘Relax,’ said the night man. ‘We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!'”

All technologies have opportunity costs, even “free” and “open” ones. Neither Facebook, nor Wikipedia, have changed the world in this regard.

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