Wednesday, April 23, 2014

when "open" means "inferior"

I await with profound impatience the day when much if not all digital jargon appears on the Banished Words List from Lake Superior State University. LSSU has earned a well-deserved reputation (and a special place in my heart) for identifying the overuse and misuse of jargony catch-phrases that infect the popular lexicon and make us all just a little bit less exact than we perhaps should be in our communication.

The prominence of "selfie" at the top of the LSSU list this year is reason for hope, I think, as were previous appearances by "trending," "viral" and "fail." I've been running a personal campaign against "mash-up" for about six years now, and if "hack" doesn't make the list soon, there is no justice. With any luck, the online havoc created by this month's Heartbleed bug will have rocketed the cutesy term "open" or its extended versions "open-source" and "open access" to the top of the list - to be banished before their source word loses its meaning altogether.

In the last year, I've noticed with some hilarity a local Toronto home alarm service advertising itself with bold claims that it uses "open access" technology in its systems. Why, I wonder, would "open access" ever be thought of as a plus for something designed to secure one's property? What this service actually means is that it uses a system of direct access communication to local fire departments in order to cut response times on fire calls. Why, then, don't they say direct access? I suppose because "open" access sounds so much more welcoming and friendly - look, it's open; that MUST be good.

Well, as we've recently learned the hard way, open ain't always good. This past weekend, the New York Times published this article by Nicole Perlroth suggesting the recently revealed extreme vulnerability of much of our online commerce and communications systems is directly linked to the openness of these systems.
"Much of the invisible backbone of websites from Google to Amazon to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was built by volunteer programmers in what is known as the open-source community. Heartbleed originated in this community..."
The fact that the Heartbleed bug seems to have been surreptitiously undermining our global web security for up to two years before anyone noticed should make us all pause to re-assess how we feel about the fashionable ubiquitousness of "open." When the door to a bar is open, that's a good thing (almost always). When the door to an airliner is open, 30,000 feet up, something's probably gone wrong.

I did a quick search of the term "open source" on the New York Times website and found, naturally, that its use has increased dramatically since the turn of the 21st century and that, for the most part, it carries with it an aura of goodness. But if we look a bit further back, one notes the term has greater depth and darker connotations. A 1931 article on hygiene in the school system warns of "open sources of contagion"; a book review refers to "open sources of danger"; many articles praise the use of "open sources" for domestic and international spying.

But why would something with declared positive intentions, like the open source software movement, run into such a diabolical problem as Heartbleed. According to the New York Times, it all comes down to money.
"... for those that do work on this [open source coding and bug-checking], there's no financial support, no salaries, no health insurance... They either have to live like monks or work nights and weekends. That is a recipe for serious trouble down the road."
In other words, according to those most invested in the open source movement the open source economy would work a whole lot better if those creating and maintaining open source code were paid well to do so.

Of course, this has applications beyond the world of coding. Many educational institutions these days are banking big on open-access and open-source learning materials as a means to save money. While backing out of licensing arrangements that pay creators legally-required royalties every time our work is copied and used in the classroom, many schools reference the increased availability of open access materials. Why pay for something when you can get something else for free?

Because, as the Heartbleed bug has so dramatically demonstrated, when open also means cheap you get what you pay for.

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Image courtesy the open source of my own vacation snapshots. No one was paid for that photo, and I believe it shows.

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