The Master Switch Symposium: Open and Closed, Unformalized and Formalized

Tim Wu’s The Master Switch compiles a series of fascinating stories about the history and development of the information industries.  The book is interesting, fun to read, and provides a provocative framework for interpreting that history in light of what Wu calls “The Cycle” from open to closed as a cautionary tale for current policy debates.  In this post I will try to poke a bit at that framework to raise some issues that I think could use more detailed analysis in the future work that will undoubtedly build on this important contribution.

1.       Open v. closed.

The Master Switch frames the history of the information industries as a Cycle between paradigms labeled “open” and “closed.”  It seems to me that this analytic structure may obscure some important diversity of degrees and kinds of “openness” and “closedness.”  Among important types of openness are open access (anyone can use the technology), open dissemination (anyone can sell or otherwise disseminate the technology), open “connection” (anyone can interface with the technology to make complementary goods), and open follow-on (information is revealed to permit anyone to build upon the technology).

Even this catalog is quite over-simplified since openness of any of these types is often more accessible to some (those with money?  those with absorptive capacity?) than to others.  For example, where one sees knowledge sharing among technological innovators, the sharing often confined within a particular community.  Historical studies (see, for example, Allen’s and Meyer’s fascinating studies of collective invention and von Hippel’s studies of innovative communities) and theoretical modeling (see, for example, Bessen’s terrific recent paper) suggest that there is often something else going on – perhaps a repeat player dynamic of reciprocal openness or an insurgency in which innovators of a new technology make common cause against the market dominance of an old technology.

“Open” and “closed” are thus complex concepts that perhaps could use some further unpacking than is reflected in the Cycle framework.  These different kinds of openness need not coexist and may sometimes (perhaps often?) be in tension with one another.  Different types of openness may well have different social consequences, potentially creating different winners and losers and different varieties of the “human flourishing” that Paul Ohm correctly emphasizes in his Symposium post.

Google, for example, is held up as a paradigm of openness in The Master Switch, yet in many very important ways Google is anything but open.  Google’s search technology is open primarily in the sense of access by searchers and “connection” by those who are the subjects of search.  It is quite closed in the senses of both dissemination and follow-on innovation.  Google’s algorithms are patented and protected by trade secrecy and its databases of information about users and their searches (which are crowd-sourced entirely from users themselves) are also protected by secrecy.  To call Google open is, for better or worse, implicitly to privilege certain kinds of openness.  It may be important to surface these distinctions.

As a general matter – and not just in the information arena – companies prefer their inputs to be open and their outputs to be closed.  This creates the competition between layers that Tim seeks to preserve with his Separation Principle.  Sensitivity to the distinctions between types of openness seems necessary in order to implement that principle.  I suspect that the question of what should constitute a separate “layer” is likely to be a moving target.  Divisions between providers of “pipes,” content, and communication services are likely to blur conceptually and not just as a matter of corporate consolidation.  Moreover, one of the ways in which the Internet really is “different,” in my view, is the extent to which it is becoming not only an essential communication platform, but fully intertwined with and indistinguishable from offline social and commercial life.  Describing the Internet as providing communication services and content is increasingly unsatisfying — one has only to think of a social media site like Facebook to see this point.  Who will decide what is a layer and how will layers subject to a Separation Principle be defined when life in the intertwined online/offline world is so fluidly evolving?  In this respect, I am intrigued by Tim’s emphasis on social norms as a source of information about where the Separation Principle should apply since it seems that distinctions between different layers may be a difficult moving target for regulators.

2.      Formalized v. Unformalized.

I benefited greatly this week from the serendipity of having Jim Bessen as the guest speaker at NYU’s Innovation Policy Colloquium. Jim’s paper, “Communicating Technical Knowledge,” our discussions, and the background reading we assigned to the students in preparation helped me begin to “formalize” in my mind a second reaction to The Master Switch and its open/closed paradigm (and a similar reaction to Jonathan Zittrain’s terrific The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It).  Jim’s recent work emphasizes the fact that communication is costly not primarily because of the cost of transmitting information, but because of the cost of formalizing knowledge so that it is accessible to particular learners.  The distinction between formalized and unformalized knowledge is important in thinking about the openness of technology because formalization (sometimes called codification) and openness, while conceptually distinct, are often linked as a practical matter.  Thus, unformalized knowledge is, for a variety of reasons, frequently shared openly within particular communities whose members have the training, experience, and background knowledge (“absorptive capacity”) to make use of it.  At the same it may be inaccessible to outsiders.  Sometimes unformalized knowledge is confined within a particular community intentionally as a way to keep an exclusive hold on it (think medieval guilds, perhaps), while other times it stays within a particular community because it is expensive to formalize it and/or expensive to develop the absorptive capacity to use it (think surgical techniques, perhaps).   The extent to which knowledge is socially useful depends heavily on both its availability and its degree of formalization (which is related to the amount of absorptive capacity necessary to employ it).  The use of the word “open” can sometimes obscure this distinction.  Hence, for example, while open source software code is openly available to those who want to build upon it in accordance with the applicable license, its degree of formalization is such that only a limited group of people have the absorptive capacity to do so.  Moreover, formalization, like openness, takes a variety of forms, which determine its usefulness to distinct groups of potential users.  The formalization of writing down the source code makes software useful to those who want to build upon or modify it, while the formalization of embedding it in an artifact or a “user-friendly” device makes it useful to those who want to use it to do something else.   These types of formalization are distinct and result in distinct types of openness.  A device that is optimal for tinkerers may not be amenable to widespread use.  This matters, of course, because technological devices are tools, which can often be used to create great social value when they are widely used.  The codification of knowledge into artifacts, in particular, is critical to openness as access and dissemination.

Openness is not a monolithic trait of technology.  Technologies can be open for some purposes and closed for others, open to some users and inaccessible to others.  The formalization of knowledge in particular ways can open it to some uses and users and close it to others.  These distinctions should be foregrounded in our thinking about how to pursue socially productive information policy.

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