Monday, May 11, 2009

The Next Big Thing



The development of Open Source, Open Systems and Open Access is coming to a device near you at the speed of Jensen Button with the force of the Atlantic Shuttle.

Yochai Benkler spells it out, Clay Shirky explains it well, Creative Commons, founder Lawrence Lessing has been broadcasting about it. Yahoo! did it this weekend, Google has a ton of it and yet few are prepared to explain it in newspapers. Journos just don’t get it. Tapscott and Williams put it quite clearly.

Perhaps they are limited by the poor (and out of date) descriptions in Wikipedia.

Open source, as in open source software, or public collaboration on encyclopaedia or open debate in blogs, releases capability, knowledge and insights to the world. Its free.

Open systems provide computing power, platforms and methods that can be used to re-cast and re-model information.

Open access like an Application Programming Interface (API)

The important thing is that anyone with the inclination can both access this ‘openness’ and can build on the information and capability offered to create new things.

This year the Cabinet Office started to push the idea.

OSS Watch funded by the JISC at the Oxford University Computing Services is working hard to develop UK capability.

The whole idea is controversial. It touches on the debate about copyright and trademarks, and patents.

In essence the argument goes thus:

Knowledge which is held in a walled garden is only available for further development to those in the garden. This is fine when organisations have the capability to tease out all the opportunities such intellectual properties offer. A case in point is the telecoms company BT. It had a patent that covered the concept of a Hyperlink and just could not see the huge commercial opportunity such a capability could offer the company. It was not until the hyperlink was generic to the use of the internet that it realised the benefits and by then the cat was out of the bag. Not all people in organisations have the time or imagination to bring all ideas (even patents) to market or into wider use. Indeed few companies have enough people with the time to do such things.

The alternative is to make such knowledge available to all. The creative genius of a population of enthusiasts drawn from the billion users online and their enthusiasm for new things like attempting to develop new applications, products services and knowledge is prodigious. They do have both time and enthusiasm to tease out the opportunities.

The ability of a lot of people, the commons to interact is the key.

Where organisations open up to this community of enthusiasts, the outcomes are astounding as Benkler explains in his book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (The book is online, downloadable, available as a PDF and, in printed form, a best seller – new media did not kill-off old media). With Helen Nissenbaum, he describes ‘commons based peer production as a socio-economic system of production that is emerging in the digitally networked environment. “Facilitated by the technical infrastructure of the Internet, the hallmark of this socio-technical system is collaboration among large groups of individuals, sometimes in the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands, who cooperate effectively to provide information, knowledge or cultural goods without relying on either market pricing or managerial hierarchies to coordinate their common enterprise.”

By standing on the shoulders of giants these people can collaborate and use existing knowledge, processes and content. Where is it’s not available, the commons size and ability to collaborate allows them to re-invent and at an incredible rate.

This is a new parallel economy and social driver. It is the next really big thing online and it affects Public Relations.

I will write a lot about this in the near future because it will be so important to PR.