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March 10, 2010, 10 a.m.

The rise of open source: Thoughts on TEDxNYED

The first article mentioning the phrase “open source journalism” was apparently published in Salon magazine in 1999, describing an experiment that had been run by Jane’s Intelligence Review, a U.K. military journal. The journal asked readers of Slashdot to provide feedback on an article about cyber-terrorism, and they responded so enthusiastically — “slicing and dicing” the story “into tiny little pieces,” Salon had it — that “the editor, Johan J Ingles-le Nobel, declared that he would write a new article incorporating the Slashdot comments, and would compensate Slashdot participants whose words made it into the final copy.”

Jay Rosen recalls reading the piece and being blown away by the concept. “I read this article,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.'”

The open-source movement has, since then, evolved from “amazing” to “amazingly common” — so much so, in fact, that the concept became the unofficial theme of a conference held Saturday, one whose official theme was education: TEDxNYED, an independently organized TED confab held in New York City. As media-and-information experts — Rosen was joined by, among others, Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig, NPR social-media guru Andy Carvin, YouTube anthropologist Mike Wesch, and Ning cofounder Gina Bianchini — discussed the future of education in an increasingly digitized world, the idea that emerged was open source’s broad application to life beyond the media and even beyond education: to social interactions, to economic relationships, and to learning as a lifelong, rather than formal, pursuit.

“One of the things that’s changing our world and disrupting our industry,” Rosen noted during his talk, is “the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, pool what they know, collaborate, and publish the results back to the world. This is what makes open-source culture possible.” It’s also what makes possible Rosen’s notion of ‘audience atomization overcome‘: the connective and collaborative power of the Web trumping people’s geographical and psychic separation. At the conference, Jarvis applied that idea to education when he decried the top-down information structures of the past (“one-way, one-size-fits-all”) and advocated for a kind of open-source approach to teaching and learning: one that trades instruction for collaboration, rote memorization for more dynamic discourse.

“We must stop looking at education as a product — in which we turn out every student giving the same answer — to a process, in which every student looks for new answers,” Jarvis said. “Life is a beta.”

This is an echo, of course, of the argument Jarvis makes about journalism: journalism-as-a-process-not-a-product is an idea that is quickly solidifying into conventional wisdom among the meta-media set. But it also represents a tension — and a deep one — in contemporary journalism: How do you sell a process? How do you commodify community? This weekend alone, as the TEDx conference convened on the Upper West Side, The New York Times published a Public Editor column that suggested, as Felix Salmon points out, a deep discomfort with the external link in blogging — much of that discomfort rooted in newspapers’ assumption that information is, indeed, a proprietary thing.

Life may be a beta, but journalism, after all, is a business. It has, along with obligations to audiences/truth/democracy/etc., obligations to sell its products so that it might stay around to keep its other promises. It’s this reality that notions of open-source culture — information, education, the notion of process in general — will have to contend with.

In the meantime, the TEDxNYED presentations will soon be available for viewing on the conference’s YouTube channel. Highly recommended.

POSTED     March 10, 2010, 10 a.m.
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