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Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University

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Closing keynote talk from Rufus Pollock (@rufuspollock) on open information as the biggest issue of the 21st century.

Dr. Rufus Pollock, Founder and President of Open Knowledge.

Livestream recording of the session, talk introduction begins at about 2:14. (Slides are also linked from an event post on

Stained glass window of <br/>St. Columba from Iona Abbey. <br/> [Vegansoldier]( [CC-BY-SA](

Stained glass window of
St. Columba from Iona Abbey.
Vegansoldier CC-BY-SA

St. Columba, an Irish abbot and missionary, founder of Iona. When Finnian brought the Latin Vulgate back to Ireland, it was the only “authorized” copy of the Bible in Ireland. Columba asked to see it - Finnian said yes, but you can’t copy it. They fought over that, whether it should be freely available or not. Colm Cille (Columba) said this should be open, should be copied far and wide - it was God’s, and not Finnian’s. This struggle over how we deal with information, how it is owned and shared, is something we’re still struggling with.

The biggest issue of the 21st century - who owns information, who controls it. Social, political. In St. Columba’s time, people weren’t literate and their economy didn’t revolve around that. Today: all that glitters is bits. Taking a dose of medicine, swallowing information. Even furniture, a large amount of the value is the design. What we produce, consume, and trade is information. Controlling the information = controlling power and wealth.

Who is the richest man in the world today? Bill Gates. If you have a monopoly on information, it’s all profit. Sure, he worked hard, but the exceptional concentration of wealth is due to the closed information. Compare to Linus Torvalds - he also worked hard, but because he made his work open, everyone benefits from his work.

Open information is essential to have a more equal society. Walter White in Breaking Bad - can’t afford cancer treatment because health care doesn’t cover it, due to the patents and research costs. For physical resources like food or a Ferrari, there are actual limits on what we have - not everyone can have a Ferrari; but that’s not the case with information.

Innovation & creativity. Open means more innovation and creativity because anyone can build on existing works. Minor things, like sliding sideways to unlock an iPhone but not on Android, because Apple patented it and sued Samsung; in that case, it’s a minor inconvenience. The race to map the human genome - a private company wanted to get there first and patent it. They lost the race, but still patented sections of it. A later study found 30% less work done on those patented sections. The best thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else.

Knowledge is power, openness is empowerment. People trust web tools like Google and Facebook; how easy would it be for them to rig an election? In 19th century America, Western Union controlled the telegraph - and they actually did work to try to rig an election, sharing messages that were meant to be private.

The vision: an open world. All public, non-private information is open, and the creators of that information and research are rewarded. Music, research, software, drug formulae.

How do you implement this? Economically & legally, how do you pay for the “first copy”? (i.e. creating something new.) And politically, how do you get there?

Where we are now - better than some possibilities, e.g. where everything is open but there’s no reward for actually researching and producing medicine so nobody creates them.

Spotify as proof of the open model - collective licensing, remuneration rights to the artists. Spotify actually had to spend engineering time crippling their service to make it more like radio, and take advantage of legal exemptions for radio. But if they get a monopoly, then they’ll squeeze both sides (consumers and artists). If everybody paid $1 a month instead of some people spending $10 a month, it would work out the same; but it’s not in Spotify’s interest to do that. There is uneven distribution of wealth & taste; some people are willing to pay more for music.

In research, three main phases: creation, distribution, filtering/selection. Journals blend distribution with filtering and selection; but distribution should be easy with digital technologies.

Dystopia is the default. If we do nothing, we end up with a closed world. We have to band together to work towards this. You overestimate what you can do in a year, but you underestimate what you can do in a decade.

Thoughts & reactions

This talk was intentionally provocative, and you can probably tell that from the conversation on Twitter - some people following right along, calling the opening story about St. Columba “preaching to the choir”, and others disagreeing or quibbling with various points. I think both on Twitter and the questions afterward, people weren’t sure it was appropriate to treat research the same as music and entertainment, in terms of funding models.

Using Spotify as an exemplar seems problematic, because I’m sure I’ve read plenty of articles about how Spotify doesn’t pay musicians enough for music to be sustainable, or that you can’t make music when it’s given away for free.

I didn’t capture it in my notes, but Pollock said something, perhaps during the Q&A, that we should be open the way we are green for the environment. It should be our default, it should become something everyone recognizes and help steer the future.