Open: A Pan-ideological Panacea, a Free Floating Signifier
Digital Heretics Who Question “Open"
A Possible (though only provisional) Solution?

Open: A Pan-ideological Panacea, a Free Floating Signifier

Andrea Liu 1,
1 ZhdK (Zurich University of the Arts) 2023-24 Fellow, New York/Berlin/Paris


“Open” is a word that originated from FOSS (Free and Open Software movement) to mean a Commons-based, non-proprietary form of computer software development (Linux, Apache) based on a decentralized, poly-hierarchical, distributed labor model. But the word “open” has now acquired an unnerving over-elasticity, a word that means so many things that at times it appears meaningless. This essay is a rhetorical analysis (if not a deconstruction) of how the term “open” functions in digital culture, the promiscuity (if not gratuitousness) with which the term “open” is utilized in the wider society, and the sometimes blatantly contradictory ideologies a indiscriminately lumped together under this word.


FOSS (Free and Open Source Software Movement), Linux, open access, Creative Commons License, copyfarleft, Telekommunisten Manifesto

“Open” is a term that has acquired an unnerving over-elasticity, a word that means so many things at times it appears meaningless. A word that originated from FOSS (Free and Open Source Software movement) to mean a Commons-based, non-proprietary form of computer software development (Linux, Apache) based on a decentralized, poly-hierarchical, distributed labor model—“open“ has now radiated its innumerable capillaries into fields as diverse as pedagogy, publishing, activism, party politics, government, science, and more. “Open“ can now mean a rhizomatic social formation that rejects top-down bureaucracy in favor of peer-to-peer network; “open“ as an insurgency against the for-profit publishing industry’s attempt to commodify knowledge (Open Access); “open“ as a Paulo Freire-like pedagogy where students are active creators—not just passive consumers—of knowledge; “open” as a form of direct democracy which rejects representative intermediaries Let‘s take a traipse through the cultural ubiquity of the term “open.“

On Deepdyve (a website giving access to academic publishers‘ books and articles), in the “Journals“ section there are no less than 29 journals that begin with the name “Open“: Open Agriculture, Open Archaeology, Open Astronomy, Open Chemistry, Open Computer Science, Open Cultural Studies, Open Economics, Open Economies Review, Open Education Studies, Open Engineering, Open Forum Infectious Diseases, Open Geosciences, Open Geospatial Data, Software and Standards, Open Health, Open Information Science, Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity, Open Life Sciences, Open Linguistics, Open Material Science, Open Mathematics, Open Medicine, Open Philosophy, Open Physics, Open Political Sciences, Open Psychology, Open Statistics, Open Systems and Information Dynamics, Open Theology, and Open Veterinary Science. (It is telling that of the 29 journals beginning with “Open,“ not a single one of them is related to art, as art is still largely predicated on orginality, exclusivity, the “aura“ of singular authorship, and therefore resistant to notions of large-scale collaborative, decentralized, or distributed authorship. That being said, one of the few exceptions to this is the Yale University School of Art website surprisingly enough, which is an “open access“ wiki whereby any student of the School of Art can change, add or alter the website:

Then we have President Obama, signing a “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.“ It declared, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government” (Obama, 2009). Obama’s paean to governmental transparency was searingly ironic, as Obama prosecuted more whistleblowers than all the previous U.S. presidential administrations combined. Obama’s adminstration murdered more people with drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with no congressional oversight, no due process and no trial—more executions in his first year than the entire 8 years of President George W. Bush’s presidency.

But let‘s stop here and take an inventory of the multifarious contexts and valences “open” operates in:

(1) “open” as a rejection of intellectual property/private property

(2) “open” as a quality of a system

(3) “open” as a rhizomatic social formation that rejects of top-down bureaucracy in favor of non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer network

(4) “open” as a form of direct democracy which rejects representative intermediaries

(5) “open“ as an insurgency against the for-profit publishing industry’s attempt to commodify knowledge (Open Access)

(6) “open” as transparency of information

(7) “open” as FOSS (Free and Open Software Movement), a non-proprietary form of software development (i.e. Linux operating system, Apache web server) which radically inverts the notion of “property as the right of exclusion,“ instead reconceptualizing “property as the right to distribute,“ aimed at creating a social structure that expands, not restricts, the resources of the commons

(8) “open” as an innovative/competitive production method to accelerate new forms of capitalist accumulation

(9) “open” as capitalist deregulation

(10) “open“ as a Paulo Freire-like pedagogy where students are active creators--not just passive consumers--of knowledge

It appears #1 is in direct contradiction with #8 & #9— the same word used to apply to a revolt against private property (#1) also means an innovative method to increase capitalist accumulation based on private property (#8 & #9). Not only are there contradictory uses of the term by different speakers, but even within the same speaker, there is a contradiction, resulting in an Orwellian doublespeak whereby the words one utters actually signify the opposite of what one means (Obama). “Open” is the clarion call, the principle that inspires ideologies as contradictory as communitarianism, anarchism, post-Marxist autonomism, & pro-market capitalist neoliberalism (i.e. as both free-market friendly Lawrence Lessig and radical post-autonomist Marxist theorists Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri both hail “open” as the new threshold to a better world):

Most think about these issues of free software, or open source software, as if they were simply questions about the efficiency of coding. Most think about them as if the only issue that this code might raise is whether it is faster, or more robust, or more reliable than closed code. Most think that this is simply a question of efficiency. Most think this, and most are wrong. . . . I think the issues of open source and free software are fundamental in a free society. I think they are at the core of what we mean by an open society (Lessig, 2005).

One approach to understanding the democracy of the multitude, then, is as an opensource society, that is, a society whose source code is revealed so that we all can work collaboratively to solve its bugs and create new, better social programs (Hardt and Negri, 2004).

To trace the point at which “open“ became culturally ubiquitous, it is perhaps useful to turn to Steven Weber’s The Success of Open Source. He explains how open source in computer software development is “an experiment in building a political economy, a system of sustainable value creation“ that rejects the notion of property as exclusion (Weber, 2004). To give a counter-example, Microsoft and Apple define “property“ as exclusion—if you buy Microsoft Windows, you can use it, but you cannot modify it, improve it, or redistribute your own version of Windows to others because of copyright, licenses and patents. Weber explains how “source code is a list of instructions that make up the ‘recipe‘ for software“ and that Microsoft does not release their source code. However, with the invention of the Linux kernel (i.e. operating system) by Linus Torvalds and countless collaborators (1992-94), a new model of software development arose whereby the source code for Linux was released to anyone who wanted to use it, without royalties or licensing fees to the author (Weber, 2004). This gave rise to a modular, decentralized, non-hierarchical (or perhaps what Jonathan Zittrain would call “poly-hierarchical“) model of labor within software development whereby copying source code (free of copyright and patent restrictions) is not only allowed, but is the ontological centerpiece of the entire system.

However, as Weber goes on to show, this very specific set of conditions of the Open Source software labor model have been banalized and rendered unrecognizable in the ongoing indiscriminate mania for “open“:

“A note of caution: As open source has begun to attract broad public attention over the last few years, the term itself has been overused as a metaphor. There are now experiments with an open-cola alternative to Coke and Pepsi, an “open music” registry, an “openlaw” project at Harvard Law School, and any number of “open content” projects to build mass encyclopedias, for example. Many of these are simply “open” forums in the sense that anyone can contribute anything they wish to a mass database..[...] Many of these projects gain their ideological inspiration from the open source process and tap into some of the same motivations. But in many instances these projects are not organized around the property regime that makes the open source process distinctive“ (Weber, 2004).

Regarding my earlier lament that traits from one strand of the Open movement are automatically ascribed to another strand of the Open movement without analysis as to whether this transfer even makes sense, John Wilbanks (former Executive Director of the Science Commons Project at Creative Commons) addresses this concern regarding the transfer of Open Software principles from the computer industry to science (i.e. Open Science):

A third problem is that science is a long, long, long, long, long way from being a modular knowledge construction discipline. Whereas writing code forces the programmer to compile the code, and the standard distribution forces a certain amount of interoperability, scientists typically write up their knowledge as narrative text. It's written for human brains, not silicon compilers. Scientists are taught to think in a reductionist fashion, asking smaller and smaller questions to prove or disprove specific hypotheses. This system almost guarantees that the tasks fail to achieve modularity like software, and also binds scientists through tradition into a culture of writing their knowledge in a word processor rather than a compiler. Until we can achieve something akin to object-orientation in scientific discourse, we're unlike to see the distributed innovation erupt as it does in culture and code (Wilbanks, 2009).

In delving further into the politics of how the word “open” functions, it is useful to turn to Nathaniel Tkacz’s Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness (2015). This book occupies an intriguingly unusual pocket triangulating between epistemology, linguistics/language deconstruction, and the politics of social polity formation—all through the prism of granular analysis of the 34 arguments in favor and 17 arguments against a certain Wikipedia entry being deleted or preserved. Tkacz talks about the shield of opacity, an immunity from political examination, which the word “open” enjoys:

I hope to have made clear that the general deployment of the open in institutional politics, and as a political concept more generally, cannot be separated from its emergence in software and network cultures. Indeed, it is perhaps more accurate to posit that today’s openness is evidence of the networked and computational, even cybernetic, nature of governance. Through these multiple trajectories, openness is placed in a variety of settings, articulated alongside different concepts, and put to use in different ways. The open circulates, scales up, garners new allies, is reconfigured, distinguished, and remixed; each movement troubles and destabilizes the articulation of its meaning.

Of all the authors cited in the account of openness I have developed here, for example, very few have turned a critical eye to the open, and there has been very little criticism about specific open projects. If a critical word is written, it is rarely substantial and most likely about how one small component can be made better, more open. Somewhat ironically, once something is labeled open, it seems that no more description is needed. Recalling Kelty’s remarks, openness is the answer to everything and it is what we all agree upon (Tkacz, 2015).

Digital Heretics Who Question “Open"

Apparently there are a few heretics who venture to lift the hood of the car and see what’s beneath, to pierce the shield of opacity, the immunity which “open” enjoys. One example of such a heretic is Michael Gurstein. After attending an Open Knowledge (OK) conference, he writes:

The ideal that these revolutionaries are pursuing is not, as with previous generations—justice, freedom, democracy—rather it is “openness” as in Open Data, Open Information, Open Government. Precisely what is meant by “openness” is never (at least certainly not in the context of this conference) really defined in a form that an outsider could grapple with (and perhaps critique).  Rather it was a pervasive and animating good intention—a grail to be pursued by warriors off on a joust with various governmental dragons.

Another heretic is Gary Hall. While Hall is a vociferous advocate of open access, he is also critical of some of the assumptions of “open,“ going as far as addressing the “violence“ which the ethos of openness and transparency conceals:

The first point to make in this respect is that, far from revealing any hitherto unknown, hidden or secret knowledge, such discourses of openness and transparency are themselves often not very open or transparent. [...] Yet, actually, complete transparency is impossible. This is because, as Clare Birchall has shown, there is an aporia at the heart of any claim to transparency. ‘For transparency to be known as transparency, there must be some agency (such as the media [or politicians, or government]) that legitimizes it as transparent, and because there is a legitimizing agent which does not itself have to be transparent, there is a limit to transparency’ (Birchall, 2011). In fact, the more transparency is claimed, the more the violence of the mediating agency of this transparency is concealed, forgotten or obscured (Hall, 2011).

Then we have The Circle, a dystopian novel by Dave Eggers which caricatures the smug utopianism of a fictional Google type company (the “Circle“) as a Scientology-like cult obsessed with transparency. The Techno-Eden company‘s faux-friendly thinly humanistic veneer conceals a fascist-like intolerance of any employee maintaining an independent interior life (or privacy) outside of The Circle’s 24/7 transparency megaplex.

Perhaps most intriguing is Wendy’s Chun suggestion in her book Programmed Visions that “open“ is merely a compensatory mechanism: as computers become more un-readable to the layman and the density of their operations increasingly opaque, users are given more to see, more is made superficially visible or “open“ (to allay anxiety our that computers have become inscrutable):

As our machines increasingly read and write without us, as our machines become more and more un

A Possible (though only provisional) Solution?

In Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov rails against the use of the word “internet“ to refer to wildly different entities. In a similar vein, in order to militate against the over-elasticity of the term “open“—an umbrella term under which blatantly contradictory ideologies are indiscriminately lumped together—I propose we instead break down the moniker of “open“ into more specific denominations. For example:

(1) “affirmative open” vs. “transgressive open”

(2) “communist open” vs. “capitalist open”

(3) “activist open” vs. “entrepreneurial open”

(4) “rejectionist open” vs. “accommodationist open”

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to delineate all four categories, in order to explain #4 “rejectionist open vs. accommodationist open” I might refer to the work of Gary Hall on the Creative Commons License. Hall critiques the standard Creative Commons License as still accommodating private intellectual property ownership, in contrast to Dmytri Kleiner’s notion of anti-copyright which rejects outright copyright (Hall, 2011). Creative Commons License would be “accommodationist open,” while Kleiner’s anti-copyright concept would be “rejectionist open.” The below excerpt from Kleiner’s Telekommunisten Manifesto exemplifies Kleiner’s staunch rejection of intellectual property rights:

Intellectual property is fraud, a legal privilege to falsely represent oneself as the sole ‘owner’ of an idea, expression or technique and to charge a tax to all who want to perceive, express or apply this ‘property’ in their own productive practice. It is not plagiarism that dispossesses an ‘owner’ of using an idea, it is intellectual property, backed by the invasive violence of a state that dispossesses everyone from the use of their common culture. […]

Kleiner then criticizes the Creative Commons License as an accommodation with the status quo intellectual property regime:

What began as a movement for the abolition of intellectual property has become a movement of customizing owners’ licenses. Almost without notice, what was once a threatening movement of radicals, hackers and pirates is now the domain of reformists, revisionists, and apologists for capitalism. (Kleiner, 2010).

Hall also laments that ‘radical’ theorists enamored with activist movements, writing books on the commons (sometimes published by the likes of Verso or Zero Books) sometimes fail to consider the political and economic ramifications of publishing with a profit-maximizing corporation instead of with an Open Access or copyfarleft license. (Hall, director of Centre for Postdigital Culture publishes “Liquid books”: experimental, post paper-centric digital books based on principles of “open editing"/open access; books with no fixed end or beginning, inviting readers to remix, reformat, and reinvent the book, called “Unidentified Digital Objects”).

As a guideline for coming up with a way to parse out the different strands of “open,” it would be helpful to use David Auerbach’s chart as a starting point. New York-based technology writer David Auerbach (author of Bitwise: A Life in Code) wrote an essay “#JeNeSuisPasLiberal: Entering the Quagmire of Online Leftism” (Auerbach, 2015) whereby he attempted to tease out different factions of the liberal-left using a chart with four quadrants“:

I propose Auerbach‘s chart simply as a provisional framework, because 1.) It seeks to differentiate an entity or phenomenon that heretofore has only been treated as a monolithic mass, into more specific denominations 2.) It then attempts to chart these sub-categories (or factions) into 4 quadrants, then uses a North-South/ East-West axis as a way to set these 4 sub-categories in relation to each other and in relation to certain characteristics. To construct an equivalent of Auerbach's chart (but instead for the Open movement) would be instrumental in differentiating between different denominations of Open:


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Open: A Pan-ideological Panacea, a Free Floating Signifier