Open or Closed?

We are seeing some interesting tribulations around "open" approaches to information sharing and knowledge exchange -- from the FBI/iPhone machinations to the naming of Boaty McBoatface, one aspect of the Digital Age is that authority's boundaries are clearly changing.

We may not have a clear sign about how the Apple/FBI case would have resolved, but there are strong indications that the US government would have prevailed. Since the phone was owned by the San Bernadino civic authorities, who wanted it opened, there was nobody but Apple standing it the way. It seemed like something the court would have made quick work of. After all, this was a case of terrorism in which 14 people died and many were injured. Apple's standing was based on a hypothetical they wrapped around their clear pecuniary interests in maintaining the reputation of security for their iPhones.

In an interesting interview with a Fred Kaplan, author of "Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyberwar," on NPR's "Fresh Air," the Apple/FBI open/close option was split in an interesting way -- one which was a lose-lose for both Apple and the FBI. The split? Someone was able to find a technical solution to the iPhone's security features, allowing the FBI in. This clearly a loss for Apple, as their vaunted iPhone security is now known to be vulnerable. It is also a loss for the FBI, which wanted a legal ruling expanding their ability to search phones of all types. Both sides did not get what they wanted -- Apple did not get to keep its image as a technology business with impenetrable security features, and the FBI did not get to set a legal precedent that would have moved their investigations a mile ahead into the modern age.

Here, it's interesting to note, we have authority arguing that Apple should open a phone, and a technology company arguing to keep the phone closed. That's a bit of a flip from what we might expect. After all, information wants to be free, as the (selectively quoted) mantra goes, and technology companies are often cited in business circles as epitomizing openness -- open offices, open source, and open door policies. Monetary incentives have a way of calling open's bluff.

We are often ourselves conflicted about where the boundary of open and closed should be drawn, and where authority now resides. Perhaps this is because what is ours and what we can control are both less apparent and less accessible. Computers have become appliances -- you can no longer simply take them apart and swap components as easily as you used to, especially tablets and smartphones. Legal documents and terms of service are agreed to without being read, just with the seemingly innocuous click of "OK" or "Accept."

Because of the new opacity of computing, technology companies like Apple and Facebook and Google seem to have the means to redraw the lines between open and closed in ways we barely appreciate -- Is your location being tracked by all three via your smartphone right now? Did you open that window to your location? How do you close it?

Yet, in a fragmented media space in which we're conditioned to feel entitled to information of all sorts, it's almost offensive to have someone say we can't access information. So the large tech companies have a psychological advantage as well as economic and technological advantages -- their tools are seen as best when left closed, while the information that makes most of them interesting we want to make open. Meanwhile, journalism shrinks and pales, becomes an echo chamber, and seems more limited than ever. "Open" has "closed" many newspapers and media outlets.

Perhaps we need to move beyond these simple words, and take a hard look at the complex technological, economic, and civic realities of our times. We have new media barons. We have new centers of civic power. In this recent case, Apple's interaction with the FBI was a sign that not only can some companies be too big to fail -- some companies can be too big for their britches.