Professor of English and Journalism, State University of New York, Albany; Author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved Us
Open Systems

This year, Edge is asking us to identify a scientific concept that "would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit." Not clever enough to invent a concept of my own, I am voting for a winning candidate. It might be called the Swiss Army knife of scientific concepts, a term containing a remarkable number of useful tools for exploring cognitive conundrums. I am thinking of open systems, an idea that passes through thermodynamics and physics, before heading into anthropology, linguistics, history, philosophy, and sociology, until arriving, finally, into the world of computers, where it branches into other ideas such as open source and open standards.

Open standards allow knowledgeable outsiders access to the design of computer systems, to improve, interact with, or otherwise extend them. These standards are public, transparent, widely accessible, and royalty-free for developers and users. Open standards have driven innovation on the Web and allowed it to flourish as both a creative and commercial space.

Unfortunately, the ideal of an open web is not embraced by companies that prefer walled gardens, silos, proprietary systems, aps, tiered levels of access, and other metered methods for turning citizens into consumers. Their happy-face web contains tracking systems useful for making money, but these systems are also appreciated by the police states of the world, for they, too, have a vested interest in surveillance and closed systems.

Now that the Web has frothed through twenty years of chaotic inventiveness, we have to push back against the forces that would close it down. A similar push should be applied to other systems veering toward closure. "Citoyens, citoyennes, arm yourselves with the concept of openness."