Opened vs. Closed Systems

There is a lot of controversy right now about how best to facilitate transgender access to public restrooms. While I am not interested in talking about that particular political issue here, it serves as a provocative starting point for a more general discussion about open (transparent) systems versus closed (private) systems.

In all things technological, political, and social we are having to make decisions on how to balance privacy versus security, and anonymity versus accountability.  The underlying assumptions about human nature and culture are important as we attempt to make wise decisions for the future.

In this podcast by a16z, Alec Ross (author of the new book The Industries of the Future), who worked on the first Obama presidential campaign and was the advisor on innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, discusses his views on the industries and cities of the future.  He argues that the principal political binary of the past century was the political ‘left versus right’. But in the 21st century the binary has shifted — the battleground now is ‘open versus closed’. Those states and societies that embrace economic, political, and cultural openness will have a better shot at competing in the software and technology-driven future.

I think there is a lot of truth to what he is asserting but we need to understand that an open system still has inherent protocols governing it (and in fact these might be more fundamentally restrictive than the closed system).

Essentially, freedom isn’t entirely or even mostly free.  A system built of legos is still bound by the essential properties of what makes legos legos, even if you can build whatever you want with it.  A government that claims to foster freedom os speech, freedom of religion, etc., is still bound by an invisible consensus that these freedoms are an important part of the protocol behind the free system – and this freedom comes at a cost.

Open systems, whether we’re talking about your component stereo system (remember those? – maybe not) or your public decency laws,  only work if the correct technological, cultural, or political protocols in place.  In the case of the stereo system, the components from differing companies should work together if they are machined to be compatible.  In the case of public decency laws, a diverse public will abide by common laws if they collectively deem to be in line with some underlying cultural expectation.  There must be some common ground.  In other words, even if the culture is diverse, the various members of the culture are still machined in a way that makes them compatible enough.  Otherwise, people expatriate from the system.

The first principles or underlying protocols that facilitate the most diverse collection of parts are, in one sense, superior to principles and protocols that only work with homogeneous or single-brand parts.  That is not to say, however, that the overall effect of the closed system isn’t better.  Apple makes a great phone, even though iOS is a relatively closed system (and most likely because it is a closed system). There are often claims made that certain homogeneous nations have superior political or cultural systems, but it could easily be argued that homogeneity simply makes them more efficient with the system they have.

You could say that the massive complexity of maintaining open systems makes them inherently weak.  The American Constitution, with its vision for plurality, establishes an intentionally weak system via checks and balances.  But you could also say that protocols which successfully sustain a heterogeneous system must necessarily be stronger than those that only work in an homogeneous system.

Diversity places greater demands on your first principles, and if those principles are well imagined, diversity makes the system more powerful.  If those principles are poorly imagined, diversity can be a contributing factor for political, technological and cultural polarization.

Forgive me for speaking so interchangeably about people and things.  Society is not a machine per se.  But with the convergence of human networks and social networking technologies, there are some interesting lessons to be learned about strengths and weaknesses of opened and closed systems.

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