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A Brief History of Open

Circa 1700 BC, the Babylonian king Hammurabi ordered the laws of his kingdom be engraved on a black stone slab and displayed in the city center for all to see. This was mostly for show, since the number of people who could read Akkadian cuneiform were probably as small then as now. But the symbolism was clear: the Law is fixed (indeed carved in stone) and not improvised at the whim of the magistrate. Of course, the Law was not popularly determined, and certainly all were not treated equal, but still this was progress.

1215 A.D., along the Thames in Surrey, at the meadow called Runnymede, a group of English Barons joined their powers together to force their monarch, King John, to affix his seal to Magna Carta, establishing that even the King himself was bound by the Law.

Philadelphia, the hot summer of 1787, representatives from 12 of the 13 American states met in Convention, at first with the aim of enhancing their current loose affiliation, but eventually agreeing upon a much more ambitious Federal form of government in their proposed Constitution. This document was far from perfect and needed ten major additions before it was considered ready for use (thus the Bill of Rights). Over the next 200 years additional problems were detected and fixed (via further Amendments) according to an process that emphasized openness and participation of all concerned parties.

These of course are three examples of the progress of openness. All can be called “open” but they are not all of the same degree of “openness”.

For example, the Code of Hammurabi was open in a sense, since it was publicly documented for all to read. But this openness is of small consequence to the builder’s son who could be legally stoned to death if a house his father built collapsed and killed it’s owner’s son. The Code was “open” but still allowed crimes committed by one person to be judicially imputed onto another party.

Similarly, the U.S. Constitution was even more open, since it was publicly documented and also well-deliberated and formed as part of a consensus process. But it still allowed slavery and denied the majority of its population the right to vote.

At the risk of falling into a teleological argument that sees all of human history leading inexorably to modern America, it does seem that the general flow of history has been:

  1. A move from undocumented or improvised laws to laws that are fixed and publicly documented.
  2. A move from laws created by a single entity to laws formed as part of a deliberative, multilateral, consensual process.
  3. A move toward increasing inclusiveness as to whose interests are considered.

So we should never stop at a claim of “openness” and say that with the mere application of this label that all diligence has been performed. You need to ask yourself always, whose interests have been taken into account? All? Many? Few? One?

There seems to me to be a natural parallel here with the “open standard” moniker. Is it a single fixed and unitary concept that admits of no degrees? Or are there a wide range of standards which share the concept “open” to one degree or another? How thinly can the concept be diluted? Can it be homeopathically prepared, with one drop enough to inoculate gallons?

I think the key is to move away from the mere consideration of the process of standardization and to also consider the content of the standard. Just as a Constitution that held that women could not vote was far from open, even though it was drafted in an open committee process, a standard that does not facilitate use by competitors is not open, regardless of the process that created it. We need to move beyond strictly process-oriented definitions of openness and bring in considerations of content and results. A standard can be per-se non-open if its content violates important principles of openness.

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