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The innovations such openness would encourage are impossible to predict. Talbot quotes Chris Blizzard, director of technical evangelism at Mozilla, which develops the open Web browser Firefox: “Nobody is going to tell you they want something before it emerges–rather, the experience of the Web is: ‘Holy Cow, I can do this other thing now!’ Open standards create low friction. Low friction creates innovation. Innovation makes people want to pick it up and use it.”

Are there limits to the alchemy of openness? As these quotations suggest, the word has come to be used broadly of all creation that is collaborative and unbound from any one company and that favors free use over paying for something. Proponents of openness tend to assume that history is with them: they are sure that industries beyond information technology will successively become open. Some evangelists of openness believe that written media (the only industry I know as well as information technology and biotechnology) must become open too. To hear them explain it, open written media would be created by anyone, not just professional journalists; it would not be owned by any one publisher but would be endlessly replicated around the Web; and it would be free.

I wonder, though, how applicable radical openness is to written media. (To read my critique of WeMedia, see my “Manifesto” in the May/June issue) In one sense, written media is already open. Unlike some computer code, words are both portable and interoperable. Anyone who knows a language may use its words freely, and they can be understood by any other speaker. Words are their own source code. Yet some writing flourishes best when authors are paid and are supported by publishers that make money directly or indirectly from their audiences. Written media is closed in the sense that it aspires to a kind of formal perfection and is created by people who feel highly proprietorial about their creations. But write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow
Video by Brittany Sauser

Tagged: Communications, Web, open standards, videos, open video

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