Open Everything: drawings & thoughts from Open Design Symposium, Linz

arduinoOpen Source, Open Kultuur, Open Images... now I have another trendy sticker to add to my laptop: "Open Design Symposium". Taking place the day before the LiWoLi festival of 'Art Meets Radical Openness', this symposium at Linz' Kunstuniversitat came as a bonus. And, indeed, a contrast. While LiWoLi concerns itself with radical openness, at this symposium *any* kind of openness seemed to be up for discussion. And open was certainly the word here; it was on everyone's lips and had already been prefixed to more nouns by lunchtime than I had previously thought possible.

Sitting in the cooling white expanse of the Kunstuniversitat, shaded from the broiling sun, I couldn't work out if I was at an art school, an open source meeting, or a business conference. The symposium attempted to combine all three in what felt like a rollercoaster ride from one trending topic to another; from one political discourse to another, with a speed that left my head spinning a little.

The first speaker, Arduino's David Cuartielles, was an apt example - being introduced as "a great example that you can share ideas on the one hand, and have a strong business on the other".

It's always a good sign when the first thing a speaker does is unplug the Mac which is invariably being used for the projection, then spends the next few minutes typing furiously against the blue screen while advising you to "never upgrade your operating system the night before a talk". David is a calmly passionate speaker, and devoted much of his presentation to enthusing about making electronics education more accessible. He also had interesting insights into the challenges of making tools for artists, who unlike hackers are still largely invested in the imperative for originality. He noted that "there is a very interesting conflict here" with the current popularity of open tools amongst artists, as "the idea of uniqeness is fundamental to being identified, and being separate from other artists".

He also discussed Arduino's business model in some detail, explaining that open designs intensify genuine competition between manufacturers as well as offering free advertising for the original brand. Explaining why Arduino soon abandoned their initial 'noncommerical' license, he summarized: "We aren't that different from any other company, except that we don't invest a lot of money in patents. We have to build a strong brand. As long as people respect our brand, they can do what they like."

This seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the day - open your designs, but retain a strong brand to ensure profits come back to your own company. Having been organised in the context of the local Creative Region initiative, which is keen to find ways of making open licensing work for the 'creative industries', it makes sense that most speakers devoted significant time to articulating open source business models.

Against this backdrop, Julian Oliver's presentation on Critical Engineering came as a jolting contrast and breath of fresh air. Julian is another endearing speaker, shy and humble in the midst of his professional success. I must admit, to my ignorant English ears his voice and intonation sounds similar enough to Tim Minchin for me to have spent the whole talk expecting a punchline or piano solo at any moment.

Anyway, there was no talk of business models, crowdsourcing or any of the like in this talk. He opened with what felt in this context like a wildly out-of-place statement: "I'm going to try and frame openness as a political position". The talk was largely an indictment of black boxes and the mysterious "realm of surfaces" which conceals the inner workings of the technology we use every day, forcing us to fall back on "high surrealism" and "vedic mysticism" to explain things like how email reaches our inbox. Without understanding how our technological surroundings function, he said, we are unable to make critical comment upon those surroundings.

While the content of this talk will be nothing new to any vaguely politicised techs, the delivery style alone made this one to watch. I particularly enjoyed a well-picked series of images illustrating the various crass metaphors people use to describe web 2.0, ending with the bleak finality of a data centre photo and the delightfully chilling, Minchin-like intonation: "No. This is where you are. Your drunken tweets, your Facebook walls, are very deep under ground... surrounded by guns, dirt, and shareholders..." If not a stand-up comic, then certainly a stand-up poet.

The day closed with a panel discussion aiming to figure out how to implement the various open models discussed on a regional level - with a view, of course, to business success. Only at the very end did the crucial question come, from a member of the audience who had to rephrase herself several times for the speakers to even understand the issue being raised: what about basic income, and the problem of open development being restricted to a priviledged elite? All the speakers who responded did what priviledged people usually do; that is, deny their priviledge, and defend their no-sleep long-hours precarious-labour good capitalist work ethic. There is a need, they all said, for hard-working risk takers ready to embrace competition.

As Dymitri Kleiner commented today in his LiWoLi presentation of the Telekommunist Manifesto, all these responses, by placing the emphasis on the individual, left the possibility of genuinely collaborative solutions untouched. Not that this should come as any surprise - but at a symposium on collaborative solutions, it does seem a somewhat sad irony.


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