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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/30/14

Review: Open Source Everything Manifesto

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Review: Open Source Everything Manifesto by Robert David Steele

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Reading Steele's manifesto was an affirmation of many of the isolated ideas that have been showing up in other reading and conversations I'm exploring. Consequently I found myself nodding approval as I recognized familiar ideas and names. I eagerly turned pages to see where he would go with it. It was as if he were showing me how it all tied together.

His big idea "Open Source Intelligence" is a synthesis of two concepts and dozens of informed perceptions about our contemporary human condition. The first concept is that human society spontaneously reacts and interacts effectively when everybody engages and shares all available information. The corollary principle is that secrecy breeds corruption, inefficiency, and deceit. The second concept is that the internet and other communications technology makes it more and more feasible for all seven billion of us to share the totality of our knowledge as a network.

His vision is one of a world that collectively learns to use the networked brainpower of all humanity for the common good creating a "Panarchy" so that society becomes resilient and proactive about meeting the threats and challenges humanity has created threatening its own very survival. Steele defines Panarchy as "an ideal condition in which every individual would be connected to all relevant information and able to participate in every decision of interest to them, from local to global. " represents direct democracy -- (As one familiar with consensus decision making in the Quaker community, this notion boggles my mind.)

Steele is a prolific reader and writer. He integrates ideas, opinions and facts from widely diverse sources naming and quoting them. This gives him an excellent foundation for his thinking, and his extensive notes let the reader explore the roots of his ideas. It is his discipline in citing the work of others that lends credibility to what might otherwise come off and unbridled idealism. His manifesto openly and unabashedly incorporates his personal opinions and assessments, which elevates it above a bland third person scholarly discourse and gives his text the energy and force you'd expect from one with his Marine Corps training.

He's fond of diagrams. I found them too complex to 'get' the meaning at a glance. Most are like a math equation; they have to be studied carefully to fully comprehend them. I suspect they each serve as a mind map that Steele himself uses to organize his thinking. After reading the text the diagrams become icons for ideas. If you scan the book, you may feel that you are looking at some sort of arcane business procedure manual. But when you dig in, you will be rewarded with stimulating insight.

Steele alludes the principal difficulty with realizing his manifesto when he notes:

-- citizens must be educated, involved, and have the interest in civic and other affairs to maximize the use of public intelligence. The establishment of transparent and open government, open society, and open economy that is truly of, by, and for We the People requires the self-actualization of We the People."

Steele asserts repeatedly that the purpose of open intelligence is to inform decisions. For ordinary individuals, this boils down to personal decisions like which candidate to support and vote for, whether to eat less meat or manufactured food, and which car to buy. We are left to ponder how individual access to global information scales up to make Panarchy work.

It's obvious that analysis and a division of labor must happen, and then we are challenged to decide whom to trust. It seems to me that we have some working models in the press. Investigative journalists produce essays with varying degrees of objectivity. Editors and fact checkers vet the information and analysis, introducing their own biases, and finally a story emerges. With open everything we could assume that the skeptics among us could check on the trustworthiness of journalists.

Individuals choose to believe. The choice is rarely rational. Some accept the analysis in the New York Times, some Fox News, and some MSNBC. In the end we still have widely divergent takes on "truth" and what is "right." Still others reject all mainstream media in favor of blogs on the internet: sources that have no accountability. As Cass Sunstein notes in Republic 2.0, it is possible for a person to tailor-make a filter for the daily news that delivers only that which affirms his or her pre-existing beliefs and interests -- all to the detriment of openly hearing and digesting divergent points of view. Even if you actively search out sources on the web, Google and others "optimize" your searches to match your interests which computer algorithms have divined from your search history (See The Bubble Filter).

The very technology that makes open source everything possible also presents a number of problems, among them information overload, propaganda, and disinformation. Steele doesn't offer specific solutions to these problems, nor does he discuss what might motivate people to be less complacent, to give up diverting, amusing and anesthetizing themselves, to engage civic responsibilities and to practice the hopefulness, vision, coherence, integrity, and activism that would make a future Panarchy viable.

The responsible civic-minded citizen needs to be highly skilled at critical thinking and also ready, willing, and able to hold the tension of paradoxical and conflicting ideas in order to see the whole. Herein lays the main difficulty with Panarchy -- only a small fraction of humanity is up to the challenge it poses. We work so we can have leisure. Working at civic responsibility is not a high priority for most. Consider the poor turnout to vote, the sparsely attended meetings of local governing bodies, etc. Only when there is a clear and immediate personal concern do we engage.

Open source is desirable but insufficient to ensure good decisions. It takes open communication. The trend in this century seems to be more toward extremism with insular cults of agreement forming that are impenetrable regardless of how openly available is the conflicting fact pattern.

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Richmond Shreve is a retired business executive whose careers began in electronics (USN) and broadcasting in the 1960s. Over the years he has maintained a hobby interest in amateur radio, and the audio-visual arts while working in sales and (more...)

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