09 June 2010

Transparency, openness, trade and politics

Ever since the OER conference in Vancouver last year, where I unintentionally became the token 'anti American' with my questions about openness becoming a vehicle for Western economic dominance and cultural colonialism, I've been troubled by the lack of preparedness of those I pitched the question to, and of any thoughtful response still...

I've since read more Illich and see he was also asking the same questions throughout the 60s, 70s into the 90s even. A nice anecdote he uses is in Tools for Conviviality about Mexican farmers and their market:
Take another tool--transportation--as an example. Under President C‡rdenas in the early thirties, Mexico developed a modern system of transportation. Within a few years about 80 percent of the population had gained access to the advantages of the automobile. Most important, villages had been connected by dirt roads or tracks. Heavy, simple, and tough trucks traveled over them every now and then, moving at speeds far below twenty miles per hour. People were crowded together on rows of wooden benches nailed to the floor to make place for merchandise loaded in the back and on the roof. Over short distances the vehicle could not compete with people, who had been used to walking and to carrying their merchandise, but long-distance travel had become possible for all. instead of a man driving his pig to market, man and pig could go together in a truck. Any Mexican could now reach any point in his country in a few days.

Since 1945 the money spent on roads has increased every year. It has been used to build highways between a few major centers. Fragile cars now move at high speeds over smooth roads. Large, specialized trucks connect factories. The old, all-purpose tramp truck has been pushed back into the mountains or swamps. In most areas either the peasant must take a bus to go to the market to buy industrially packaged commodities, or he sells his pig to the trucker in the employ of the meat merchant. He can no longer go to town with his pig. He pays taxes for the roads which serve the owners of various specialized monopolies and does so under the illusion that the benefits will ultimately spread to him.
The question is really about consequences, and how well we keep an eye on the values that drive them.  Where do these values come from? Who is pushing them and why?

Most of us when pressed I think, don't really know why we vouch for openness! For instance, the open education movement is largely unnecessary if we stop and consider the impracticalities of copyright and IP, the reality of our dismissive actions towards copyright, the impoverished condition we allow ourselves to be in if we respect copyright, and the fact that we are awash with free content and open practices. Why do we need a formal decree? Who is pushing it, and why?

Where does the Hewlett Foundation's money come from for example?
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been making grants since 1967 to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world.
But why was it set up? It influences the development of openness in education more than we acknowledge and critique. Its a banner, a flag, under which a great many individuals exist largely to maintain the Foundation identity above their own, no-less...

Adam Curtis springs to mind as someone who has the gift of getting underneath it all, and bringing something of it into plain light for all to see. His documentaries for the BBC are outstanding, Century of the Self, The Trap, and The Power of Nightmares are all found on Google videos. Through them he presents perhaps an all too simplistic and linear insight into how we've come to where we are, and the hidden agendas and unquestioned ideologies that lead us here. But ultimately Curtis' work is a critique on politicians and 'good' intentions. Not surprisingly, so is Illich's. Not the pollies in suites, in front of cameras necessarily. The far greater number are the ones of us who forgo our own identities under some abstract banner or flag, working on obscured - if not hidden agendas that come together like some absurd experimental cocktail of action, with consequences never intended nor foreseen.

Recently, Adrian Hearn (Research Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney) gave a fascinating lecture at the Sydney Ideas Open lecture series: Rethinking Good Governance and Transparency: The China-Latin America-U.S. triangle. In the first half of his lecture he outlines 3 differing perspectives on the notion of transparency. One of Cuba's - largely driven by a hegemonic political ideology, the USA's driven by a different (but dominant) political ideology of free market rhetoric, and China's based on intense pragmatism and resentment for its treatment by US global politicians. I recorded the key excerpt that is this part of his lecture.

What I'm wondering about is, to what degree is openness part of a political ideology and consequence we are not so conscious of? We know and love the rhetoric we use every day, like sharing, education for all, accessibility, reusability, creative commons and all that, but how much is the openness movement originating out of, or becoming part of a larger economic agenda?

Certainly big funding banners and flags help steer the rhetoric and direction just by touching projects and absorbing individuals into its institutionalised logic. Those banners and flags are involved with even larger global flags like OECD and UN, World Bank, WTO and the like, who absorb even more individuals under one. How much of the ideology of openness spawned from those flags and their agendas?

Or is openness driving the changes in the other direction, generating an ideology at the "grass roots" as we call it. Perhaps it has the economists adjusting their rhetoric and rewards? Perhaps the intercourse is both ways simultaneously - this would be the easy out on the question of course. Who and what therefore, is left out? Adrian Hearn's lecture gives a bit of a clue.

Either way, their is a slightly disturbing homogeneity and silence in the openness movement's discourse. Many of us may think we have only the best intentions in mind, but like so many ideologies before, the consequences were never quite as we hoped.


brent said...

Pressed for time right now ... but have been thinking about this post a bit today and I think you're onto something. Many conversations that i've engaged in over the past couple of years around OER and particularly notions of "freedom" have disturbed me somewhat and have led me towards this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Concepts_of_Liberty but i've yet to have enough time to really look into it. Perhaps you do. More later if I can find some time.

Leigh Blackall said...

As always, rich links Brent. Thanks! Perhaps we might record a skype talk some day.. you still Blagging the Blogosphere? Only music?

brent said...

Actually the Wikipedia article is pretty confusing I think.

This one is better: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/ ... must attack the original one day.