‘Open’ is a concept we usually consider positive. But is this still accurate? That something is ‘open’ evokes the notion it is accessible for all, and therefore a benefit to a society’s demand for equality. Certainly, the digital movements of “Open Source” and “Open Access” are both considered as progressive movements. Only by now there is more to it than that.

To evoke social ‘goodoing’, David Cameron makes a strong use of ‘open’ when recently praising “tax and transparency” at the Open for Growth conference. And to position itself against Apple, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt attacks his rival, because Apple pursues a “core strategy of closedness”.

What is going on here?

Have the good guys won and we live in an open and just society? If so, it wouldn’t need the revelations of an Edward Snowden. Or has the logic we live in changed, and open isn’t progressive anymore? But then it wouldn’t have become a campaign strategy.


It appears that the concept is a mess. For all those interested in exploring this mess, Nathaniel Tkacz essay “From open source to open government: A critique of open politics” (free download here) provides some excellent orientation.

A critique of open

In a nutshell, the essay lays bare the ambiguity of openness by investigating its links to neoliberal forces. For this, Tkasz works his articulate way not only through political theory (Popper’s “The Open Society”, Hayek) but also to the free software movement (GNU, Open Source), Google’s business strategies, or the Tea Party’s political campaigns. Holding on to its general progressive potential, he explores its political weakness and points us directly to its problem:

“there is something about openness, about the mobilisation of the open and its conceptual allies, that actively works against making (…) closures visible.”

Open can be used as a false mask, and is useful to shield certain interests. It certainly has become a campaign strategy. I find this point Nate makes an important point to consider. However, this doesn’t mean it is useless for left leaning political progress: as the world we now live in likes it complicated, it can simultaneously be a false mask and a progressive concept. This is something which shouldn’t be forgotten. In the neoliberal mess we live in, the concept of ‘open’ can still be used to create a public space (open access, open source).

Nate is right, “‘open’ has become a master category of contemporary political thought” (387). Wherever it appears, it takes us to the heart of political struggle: it has become the door to enter the controversy.

Tkacz, Nathaniel. “From open source to open government: A critique of open politics.” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 12.4 (2012): 386-405. (Free download here).


3 thoughts on “Why ‘open’ isn’t progressive anymore

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