Revisiting openness: The Finnish Institute in London launches The Open Book

It increasingly seems that everyone wishes to be ‘open.’ What we really mean by ‘open,’ however, is yet intriguingly unclear. Richard Stallman, one of the creative forces behind the free software movement, once aptly questioned the concept: in a hot room filled with enthusiastic advocates of ‘open’ the only thing he’d like to see opened was the nearby window. In other instances he’d prefer the word ‘free.’

We don’t know all the exact reasons for Mr Stallman to prefer word ‘free’ over ‘open’, of course, and that is not the key issue here. His anecdote about the window, however, illustrates the importance of words, and the meanings we attach to them. ‘Open’ can indeed mean a great variety of things and confusions may emerge if it is used carelessly.

In terms of digital openness, our friends at Open Knowledge Foundation have done a great job in creating and updating open data definitions. In societal terms, however, the question remains: why should we indeed be ‘open?’ Isn’t it enough if we acted in the interests of social progression, fairness and equality? If we are to use ‘open’ as an adjective for desirable societal outcomes, much more effort is needed in order to conceptualise it properly.

Arguably, the narrative of openness has in places changed from emphasising citizens’ democratic rights of accessing public information to promoting transparency as means to enhancing economic efficiency of a given administration. Indeed, the word ‘open’ is argued to have significant economic connotations in relation to previously more often used word ‘public.’ Moreover, there are arguments which state that many of the so called open government projects in fact support merely a better service delivery, not necessarily good governance or democracy.

The Finnish Institute tackles the problem of ‘open’ in The Open Book, a newly-released book created jointly between the Institute and Open Knowledge Foundation. The book was published officially last month at FutureEverything Summit of Ideas and Digital Invention in Manchester.

The Open Book does not attempt to present any single argument on what openness is or should be. Instead, it serves as a platform for discussion and a launching pad for new ideas about the future of a global open knowledge movement in a time of rapid technological progress.

In that sense the book aims at epitomising the Institute’s mission of supporting the development of a knowledge society which is based on professional values of collaboration and intellectual autonomy. ‘Open’ in any of its forms is not a panacea, but we do believe that transparency can be a key to good governance and that inclusivity in public participation will lead to a stronger and a more cohesive civic society. Moreover, equality in social, physical and intellectual access to information is crucial in terms of diminishing the knowledge gap, which in many places may haunt the social progress.

The Open Book consists of two parts. Part One features a crowdsourced graphic-based concertina outlining the history of open knowledge in the form of a timeline. Part One takes a look at the evolution of open knowledge throughout its lifespan as a movement, highlighting key events that have contributed to its evolution in becoming a global movement for increased civil transparency.

Part Two offers an in-depth portrait of open knowledge as a concept, exploring its many facets through a series of articles written by the movement’s pioneers from around the globe. We have Joris Pekel arguing how the role of archivists is evolving from a mere preserver to a publisher and Joonas Pekkanen contemplating the future of citizen initiatives, a new political tool for the masses. Tarmo Toikkanen questions how do public interests, commercial interests, openly available knowledge and new, open methods of operation change the face of education. In total, it features 25 in-depth thought pieces written by pioneers of open knowledge movement from around the globe.

The Open Book is published as a part of Institute’s “Reaktio” book series. It is available in both printed and pdf formats. The Open Book can be freely copied, reused and redistributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Its contributors retain individual copyright over their respective contributions, and have kindly agreed to release them under the terms of this license. The timeline of open knowledge is also published online.

Download a free copy of The Open Book here.

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