Open Technology: Breaking Free

What does it take to enjoy “Open Technology”? Is there a definition that actually makes sense? What’s wrong with the present state of technology? And, perhaps most important, why should we even care? After reading a rather phoney essay on the technological prospects of the foreseeable future, these questions kept me occupied for several weeks.

The gist of this surreal scribble was the poorly disguised promise of a cushy life to commence any day now, full of wonders yet unheard of, and that we should wish for this future to arrive rather sooner than later. We all would be so much better off. Well, I do harbour some doubts, to say the least.

The slowness of one section of the world about adopting the valuable ideas of another section of it is a curious thing and unaccountable. This form of stupidity is confined to no community, to no nation; it is universal. The fact is the human race is not only slow about borrowing valuable ideas — it sometimes persists in not borrowing them at all.

Mark Twain, Some National Stupidities

I’ve always been a supporter of useful technology, but I’m too much of a pragmatist to fall for every hype that’s tossed my way.

As I see it, the purpose of technology is to solve problems — to remove obstacles that kept us for some time from making meaningful progress, and proved to be unresolvable by any other means — rather than invent problems in order to justify “new solutions”.

I’m sorry to say so, but in this respect, we have already lost our way some time ago. Too large a number of modern devices cause more problems than offer real solutions.

Many of them have an actual life cycle shorter than their phase of development, which begs the question whether developing them was actually worth the effort.

Most of them are closely tied to a particular manufacturer or technology, which poses a challenge to both end users and all nodes of the distribution chain once a manufacturer happens to discontinue business or decide to abandon a particular technology.

And practically none of them come with the possibility to replace or repair individual parts in order to extend their life cycle or range of use. There is no infrastructure for them, they are basically rather short–lived and, more often than not, environmentally harzardous disposables.

Are wasting drinking water, rare earths, precious metals, and an insane amount of plastic residue in our oceans (with microparticles thereof in all kinds of organisms, including the human body) the “solution” we were aiming at? If so, tremendous success was ours — and we are still going strong. Yet when saving quality time, increasing individual health and wealth, an improved universal communication, and, as a consequence, a “better life” was the goal, we failed miserably.

Only a small number of individuals have great and unique ideas and concepts that might help us progress in a meaningful way. The majority is better at pointing out shortcomings, making demands, complaining about lacks; by concealing — or unduly protecting, really — our efforts and findings, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to participate in a valueable resource — the gut feeling of the society. Some may consider “closed technology” a means to protect success for some time (which is too unpredictable an entity to take into account), but ultimately it is a dead end.

What Does It Take to Enjoy “Open Technology”?

Actually, the answer to what it takes to enjoy open technology is pretty simple: openness. The real challenge is to achieve it. It means to let go of one’s ego and to overcome the “NIH syndrome” (short for “Not Invented Here”). It also means to put function before form. And, ultimately, it means to put universal utility before individual profit.

“Open technology” is no contradiction to “compensation for effort”, or even “profit”. “Open” does not necessarily equal “free of charge” (as in “free beer”), but it always equals “free of (arbitrary) restrictions” (as in “free speech”). It goes without saying that “open technology” is more than just a label; it is a concept that requires a certain state of mind, includes all stages of development, and considers both a product’s life cycle and its “afterlife” (the time when it ultimately goes out of use). Yes, “open technology” is a challenge for both the manufacturer and the user — but so is “closed technology”, if in a different way.

Is there a Definition that Actually Makes Sense?

I’m not sure whether there already is — or ever was — a useful, universal definition of “open technology”; despite all the advanced technology available, I failed to find one so far. There appear to be quite a number of standards in every field of technology, some perhaps more useful than others, but “many standards” essentially equals “no standard”.

Yet, and I think I’m not alone with this notion, one open standard and a general policy to comply with it, are prerequisites for a solid development towards open technology. In this respect, I’m not much of a liberal, we (and, make no mistake, by “we” I mean all of us) have proved over and over again that mere “recommendations” simply won’t do.

Personally, I started to apply a simple set of rules to test against products in all fields of technology (from the purely mechanical to the purely electronical) to determine their individual degree of “openness”, and by such their usefulness to me. Here goes:

  • Is the product likely to survive the warranty period (i.e., considering their overall quality of design and production)?
  • Does the product provide more than one way of operation (i.e., is there a reasonable work–around, if the default setting is not applicable or the default environment or infrastructure not available)?
  • How inclusive is the product of other technologies (i.e., is it capable of working along or in combination with other technologies)?

Clearly, the more complex a product, the higher the probability it will fall foul of one or more of these rules. A device — how complex ever — that fails all criteria will have to blow all contenders out of the water to even be considered. In doubt, I tend to opt for a less complex solution that promises more stability, or more sustainability, or — to use this generic term at least once — more flexibility.

What’s Wrong with the Present State of Technology?

If you happen to be a young person — in your early twenties or even younger — you may not realise that you are constantly and deliberately subjected to limitations by manufacturers; even early Millennials (born sometimes in the 1980s, a.k.a. Generation Y) may lack proper comparison.

Yet for a member of Generation X (like yours truly), and even more so for a “Baby Boomer” (my parents’ generation), these limitations are sometimes intolerable. It’s true, some of us reject devices that employ advanced technology because they don’t understand how these work. The rest of us rejects — or is suspicious of — them, because we know that some of what most “youngsters” consider indispensable is merely a rip off in fancy disguise.

How do we know? We do remember times when there was intelligent, creative life without any of these devices. We remember times when our father (or grandfather) opened a broken radio (ancient devices to stream music and other audio files; dependent on uninterrupted reception of qualitative radio signals) and repaired it, either by way of a hardware hack or simply by replacing spare parts that were considerably cheaper than the device, and readily available. You walked into the next electrician or radio shop (either of which could be found around every other corner from your home), and, more often than not, they had the necessary parts on stock.

I once saw a car (of a famous Russian brand) with the rear axle of a small truck as a replacement for its own broken one. Granted, it looked funny and was (meant to be) a temporary fix only, but it worked. Now, try this trick with any one model available today.

Just for the heck of it — and here I have to trust the precious reader is smart enough to refrain from actually doing as I say — try to replace the battery of your [one fancy brand here] mobile with your friend’s [another fancy brand here] phone. The odds are, none of the two will even fit into the other’s body, let alone have more than one technical specification in common.

My father used to have a collection of small light bulbs (for cars) in a cardboard box in the trunk. When one of the lamps in his car died, he unscrewed the lamp cover (on the inside of the engine compartment or the trunk), and replaced the dead bulb with one from his collection. It took him less than ten minutes, no sophisticated tools required.

The last time a bulb in my car died, I was hard pressed to find a car parts dealer, had to specify brand, model (and whether it happens to be of a special edition), year of construction, capacity, and horsepower — to have the entire lamp ordered from a wholesaler. There was no way to disassemble the lamp to get to the bulb as all parts were fused together. Needless to say, the light bulb was not available individually anyway.

Four–wheeled vehicles undoubtedly have advantages over three–wheeled ones, but selling more wheels should not be their prime purpose, and inventing a new wheel cannot be the justification for their existence. Yes, this is a metaphor, but you may as well take it literally.

Why Should We even Care?

Well, the most obvious individual reason is economics. We could save a lot of money and time, if most technical parts were standardised. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take the mobile phone example again, as you, precious reader, might use one to read this article right now.

Imagine you could replace the battery of your phone with any one phone battery available, be it a new one from a shop down the street or the one from your old phone that’s still sitting in a drawer of your desk, utterly abandoned and otherwise quite useless; or open the phone’s body to check whether there is a loose connection; or replace only the mainboard or display, because these components share the same form factor across manufacturers.

As often as not today, you are lucky, if your phone’s lifespan exceeds the end of the warranty period. This is ridiculous. You could considerably expand the lifespan of your device (sometimes) for as little as the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and spare yourself the nerve–racking task of having to set the configuration to your liking every two or so years, or the worry to lose data.

Generally speaking, we are wasting resources, we are wasting jobs, and we are wasting creativity. “Rare earths” (natural elements, used in a wide range of electronical devices) and “precious metals” are called that for a reason. We do not “secure the jobs” of people who dig for and collect these elements (which is both tedious and dangerous, by the way), we help manufacturers exploit them.

Manufacturers are wasting these resources in large quantities by oversaturating the market in a ridiculous fashion with devices that are far too short–lived to justify this depletion. Since devices are designed to prohibit any form of physical manipulation, any attempt to recycle these elements is either rendered impossible or prohibitively expensive — which leads to even more depletion of resources, more waste of money, and more exploitation of workers. Hence, both their ecological and economical footprint exceed their actual use by far.

Establishing “Repair Cafés” around the world, clearly is a worthwile approach as these help reduce waste, recycle precious resources, and create jobs, but establishing strict guidelines for manufacturers to design and produce devices with a smaller footprint but higher technical flexibility (or “openness”, if you prefer) would provide considerable tailwind for responsible handling of technology, and help the environment. Reduced user comfort and raised item prices are an acceptable trade–off for increased sustainability and autonomy.

Last but not least, “open technology” boosts creativity. Creativity, the desire and ability to invent new things or improve old ones; to find workarounds to overcome known difficulties; to push forward, lest we get stuck in any one moment in time, is one of the most precious resources to help us get by — and it is open and free.

Regardless of the device you are using to read this article, you wouldn’t be able to, if those having created the operating system or applications for it had not been influenced by others before or around them. It is rather safe to state that you would not have a comfortable browser to display this article, if several technologies employed (in combination) to drive the Internet as we know it today had been kept confidential by those who had conceived them.

Or, for the sake of less technically inclined readers, let’s take languages. Do you realise how difficult communication in English — or most European languages, really — would be today, or recognise how long it would have taken to develop them sufficiently, if the ancient Romans (or Greeks) had issued a strict “no adoption/no derivation policy”?

If you don’t, skip every word adopted from Latin or Greek in this text and see whether it still makes any sense to you (if it did so in its original state, that is).