Generation Open

I spent the weekend in DC at TransparencyCamp, an event modeled after BarCamp focused on government transparency and open access to sources of federal data (largely through APIs and web services). Down the street, a social-media savvy conference called PowerShift convened over 12,000 of the nation’s youth to march on Congress to have their concerns about the environment heard. They were largely brought together on social networks.

Last week, after an imbroglio about a change to their terms of service, Facebook published two plain-language documents setting the course for “governing Facebook in an Open and Transparent way“: a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities coupled with a list of ten guiding principles.

The week before last, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) released a set of recommendations for open government that, among other things, called for government data to be available in formats that promote reuse and are available via public APIs.

WTF is going on?

Clearly something has happened since I worked on the Spread Firefox project in 2004 — a time when Mozilla was an easily dismissed outpost for “modern communists” (since meritocracy and sharing equals Communism, apparently).

Seemingly, the culture of “open” has infused even the most conservative and blood-thirsty organizations with companies falling over each other to claim the mantle of being the most open of them all.

So we won, right?

I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think it’s now when the hard work begins.

. . .

The people within Facebook not only believe in what they’re doing but are on the leading edge of Generation Open. It’s not merely an age thing; it’s a mindset thing. It’s about having all your references come from the land of the internet rather than TV and becoming accustomed to — and taking for granted — bilateral communications in place of unidirectional broadcast forms. Where authority figures used to be able to get away with telling you not to talk back, Generation Open just turns to Twitter and lets the whole world know what they think.

But it’s not just that the means of publishing have been democratized and the new medium is being mastered; change is flowing from the events that have shaped my generation’s understanding of economics, identity, and freedom.

Maybe it started with Pearl Jam (it did for me!). Or perhaps witnessing AOL incinerate Netscape, only to see a vast network emerge to champion the rise of Firefox from its ashes. Maybe being bombarded by stinking piles of Flash and Real Player one too many times lead to a realization that, “yeah, those advertisers ain’t so cool. They’re fuckin’ up my web!” Of course watching Google become a residue on the web itself, imbuing its colorful primaries on HTTP, as a lichen seduces a redwood, becoming inseparable from the host, also suggests a more organic approach to business as usual.

Talking to people who hack on Drupal or Mozilla, I’m not surprised when they presume openness as matter of course. They thrive on the work of those who have come before and in turn, pay it forward. Why wouldn’t their work be open?

Talking to people at Facebook (in light of the arc of their brief history) you might not expect openness to come culturally. Similarly, talking to Microsoft you could presume the same. In the latter case, you’d be right; in the former, I’m not so sure.

See, the people who populate Facebook are largely from Generation Open. They grew up in an era where open source wasn’t just a bygone conclusion, but it was central to how many of them learned to code. It wasn’t in computer science classes at top universities — those folks ended up at Arthur Anderson, Accenture or Oracle (and probably became equally boring). Instead, the hobbyist kids cut their teeth writing WordPress plugins, Firefox extensions, or Greasemonkey scripts. They found success because of openness.

ShareThat Zuckerberg et al talk about making the web a more “open and social place” where it’s easy to “share and connect” is no surprise: it’s the open, social nature of the web that has brought them such success, and will be the domain in which they achieve their magnum opus. They are the original progeny of the open web, and its natural heirs.

. . .

Obama is running smack against the legacy of the baby boomers — the generation whose parents defeated the Nazis. More relevant is that the boomers fought the Nazis. Their children, in turn, inherited a visceral fear of machinery, in large part thanks to IBM’s contributions to the near-extermination of an entire race of people. If you want to know why privacy is important — look to the power of aggregate knowledge in the hands of xenophobes 70 years ago.

But who was alive 70 years ago? Better: who was six years old and terribly impressionable fifty years ago? Our parents, that’s who.

And it’s no wonder why the Facebook newsfeed (now stream) and Twitter make these folks uneasy. The potential for abuse is so great and our generation — our open, open generation — is so beautifully naive.

. . .

We are the generation that will meet Al Qaeda not “head on”, but by the length of each of its tentacles. Unlike our parents’ enemies, ours are not centralized supernations anymore. Our enemies act like malware, infecting people’s brains, and thus behave like a decentralized zombie-bot horde that cannot be stopped unless you shift the environment or shut off the grid.

We are also the generation that watched our government fail to protect the victims of Katrina — before, during and after the event. The emperor’s safety net — sworn nemesis of fiscal conservatives — turned out not to exist despite all their persistent whining. Stranded, hundreds took to their roofs while helicopters hovered over head, broadcasting FEMA’s failure on the nightly news. While Old Media gawked, the open source community solved problems, delivering the Katrina PeopleFinder database, meticulously culled from public records and disparate resources that, at the time, lacked usable APIs.

But that wasn’t the first time “privacy” worked against us. On September 11, 2001 we flooded the cell networks, just wanting to know whether our friends and family were safe. The network, controlled by a few megacorporations, failed under the weight of our anxiety and calls; those supposed consumer protections designed to keep us safe… didn’t, turning technology and secrecy against us.

. . .

Back to this weekend in DC.

You put TransparencyCamp in context — and think about all the abuses that have been perpetrated by humans against humans — throughout time… you have to stop and wonder: “Geez, what on earth will make this generation any different than the ones that have come before? What’s to say that Zuckerberg — once he assembles a mass of personally identifying information on his peers on an order of magnitude never achieved since humans started counting time — won’t he do what everyone in his position has done before?”

Oddly enough, the answer is probably not. The reason is the web. Even weirder is that Facebook, as I write this, seems to be taking steps to embrace the web, seeking to become a part of it — rather than competing against it. It seems, at least in my interactions with folks at Facebook, that a good portion of them genuinely want to work with the web as it today, as they recognize the power that they themselves have derived from it. As they benefitted from it, they shall benefit it in turn.

Seems counterproductive to all those MBAs who study Microsoft as the masterstroke of the 21st century, but to the citizens of the web — we get it.

What Facebook is attempting — like the Obama administration in parallel — is nothing short of a revolution; you simply can’t evolve out of a culture of fear and paranoia that was passed down to us. You have to disrupt the ecosystem, and create a new equilibrium.

If we are Generation Open, then we are the optimistic generation. Ours only comes around every several generations with the resurgence of pure human spirit coupled with the resplendent realization of intent.

There are, however, still plenty who reject this attitude and approach, suffering from the combined malaise of “proprietariness”, “materialism”, and “consumerism”.

But — I shit you not — as the world turns, things are changing. Sharing and giving away all that you can are the best defenses against fear, obsolescence, growing old, and, even, wrinkles. It isn’t always easy, but it’s how we outlive the shackles of biology and transcend the physicality of gravity.

To transcend is to become transparent, clear, open.