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Open Closed

Brexit, Trump and The Battle For Open

When The Economist runs two articles on the same theme within a week there’s a need to take note. Both pieces argued that the big split in western politics is no longer between left and right, but between open and closed. 

Open and closed, in this context, refers to borders, trade, culture – pretty much how we live. As the author of a book called OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live And Learn In The Future, you can guess where my sympathies lie. Although my book dealt specifically with knowledge, I looked at geo-politics: the book was written during the exhilaration of the Arab Spring. Although I contend that the opening of knowledge didn’t trigger the fall of dictatorships in that region, it made it easier for the revolutionaries to collaborate and make their campaigns more effective. Critics of my book cite the subsequent tragedies in the region in the intervening years as proof that Open isn’t always the victor. Events in Europe (with the rise of the ‘drawbridge-up’ brigade, most notably seen in Brexit) and in the US, through the realisation that Trump – global champion of ‘closed’ – could actually win, would seem to underline their claims.

Two quick clarifications: first, I argued in the book that the battle for open was in play, not a done deal – admittedly, we’re seeing a swing of the pendulum, but it hasn’t stopped moving yet; second, would defenders of Closed preferred to have seen Gadaffi, Mubarak et al, still in power? The emergence of Daesh is, I’d argue, what happens when Closed becomes criminal.

 Before explaining why I still think Open will win, let’s look at Brexit as an illustration of why the Economist has it right, and that Open/Closed is where the real political schism lies. Analysts have sought to explain the ‘Leave’ victory along all kinds of lines: class, regionalism (North vs South), age, race. The only analysis that hasn’t been applied is the old Left/Right. It’s as if we accept that the world is more complex than that, it’s just that our political systems haven’t adjusted.

One school of thought was that those who voted Leave were the ‘economically left behind’ – but that doesn’t explain why swathes of the prosperous South-East of England also voted to Leave, or why large economically deprived parts of Scotland voted to Remain. The only correlation that seems to hold up is that of social attitudes, seen most graphically in Lord Ashcroft Polls:

Social Attitudes and Brexit

In other words, those who wanted to pull the drawbridge up, were – by and large – the culturally  left behind. The world has changed, through globalisation, through more liberal attitudes,  – in becoming more open – and they don’t like it. ‘Taking back control’ – of borders, of migration, of law making – is the closed credo.

Closed narrowly won the battle of Brexit, and the world will hold its breath over the Trump/Clinton choice, not least because it’s the biggest play so far in the Open/Closed war. But here are five reasons why I’d argue that, regardless of the outcome of the November vote, Open will eventually prevail.

  1. Innovation – the key to our future prosperity – happens faster when businesses are open.  BrewDog, the fastest growing beer company in the world, is committed to making all its recipes open source. It wants people to become home brewers – it will even scale and distribute the best recipes received from its customers. Despite giving away its intellectual property, BrewDog’s profits rose 69% last year. Similarly, Elon Musk has made all of Tesla’s patents open-source, because he believes our reliance upon fossil fuels will end sooner that way. Sure, Apple are still an example of a closed strategy, but the chickens appear to be coming home to roost, as its well of innovation seems to have run dry.
  2. Open leads to personal freedom and control of our own lives. The Brexiters argued that pulling up the drawbridge would give us more control of our destiny as a nation state. But a nation is a collection of individuals, and keeping the drawbridge down means that we have far more control over our personal lives. The phenomenal growth of the sharing economy (and I’d argue that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg) has allowed us to be more in charge of our lives – who’d want to give that away?
  3. Globalisation isn’t going to go away. However many walls you build to keep out the foreigners, globalisation is a thing: the whole world is on the move, and coming out of the EU will have a negligible effect on immigration. But the economic argument for diversity in the workforce was not well made during the Brexit debates. Recent OECD evidence suggests that migrants spur innovation and economic growth, contribute more in taxes than they take in benefits and fill important gaps in the workforce. This is not to say that there aren’t significant problems with mass migration, and discussing these doesn’t make you a racist. But the Closed ideology seeks to make the problems of globalisation go away by ignoring them – while snapping up cheap phones from China.
  4. Open, by making trade, knowledge and innovation accessible to anyone, anywhere, contributes to making the world a more level playing field. Being closed perpetuates inequality – the entire neoliberal philosophy rests on there being winners and losers. Trump is avowedly committed to keeping less prosperous countries in their place, thus giving future terrorists still more ideological fuel for their fires. 
  5. Open reveals our better selves. The aforementioned sharing economy is just one example of an open system that relies upon trust to be successful. Being closed fosters fear, distrust, and anger. One of the great ironies of social media – the epitome of open communications – is that it has been largely discredited by the closed brigade being allowed to vent their spleen to all and sundry. But to blame Twitter for the existence of Trolls is akin to blaming the combustion engine for drunk drivers. And for every bilious tweet there are ten expressions of empathy, or  donations to good causes.

A recent opinion piece in the Guardian warned of the futility of countering Closed misinformation (citing the £350m for the NHS lie) with logic alone. The Closed brigade appear to be gaining ground because they’re ignoring troublesome things like facts, and instead honing in on stoking up emotions.  Open advocates need to learn from Michelle Obama’s barnstorming speech at the Democrat’s convention

Open will win but it needs to appeal to head and heart. But it will win because, in the words of Google’s Jonathan Rosenberg people “gravitate towards it, then they will expect and demand it, and be furious when they don’t get it….the future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation.

The battle for Open is far from won. These futures have to be fought for, because the people who want to pull up the drawbridge on every aspect of our lives aren’t about to roll over.