When Open Societies Fail

Why is Wikipedia mostly OK, but so many comments at the end of newspaper articles make you weep for humanity’s future – when both are open for everyone to write?


In October 2017 Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia spoke at Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur. He reflected on, among other things, Wikipedia’s openness of knowledge production, its usefulness to many, and its sustainability. About 18 months before then, Microsoft had shut down a failed experiment on openness and Artificial Intelligence: Tay, the online Twitterbot AI-enabled to learn from its interaction with users. In the event, Internet trolls ended up keying in so much venom-driven input that Tay came to spew hate, racism, and misogyny. These three story arcs — Wikipedia, Tay, online newspaper commentary — reflect generally on the workings of open societies.


Many observers find appealing the hypothesis that open, individual-oriented, bottom-up societies achieve outcomes that, even if not point-wise optimal, are dynamically robust and resilient. Since at least Popper and Friedman, this idea has been a plank of Western economic and political analysis. This hypothesis often informs prediction of eventual failure in varieties of Asian economic performance, from Singapore’s to China’s. Open societies might suffer shocks — financial crisis, Trump, Brexit — but they learn from mistakes and get back on track quickly. In contrast, authoritarian controlled systems are unsustainable and fragile — even if they might achieve in the short to medium term Disneyland-like success and economic performance. Without moving to greater openness, parts of East Asia such as Singapore and China that have seen economic success should prepare themselves for collapse of Mugabe-esque proportion.

This hypothesis implies that across the universe of closed systems one might see interim diversity in outcome — both failure and success. But in the long run, only open systems should systematically display success because over time open systems adapt and closed ones don’t.

Openness and individual empowerment are in themselves desirable and deserving of aspiration. The question here concerns not their intrinsic appeal; it is instead about their implications for systemic outcomes. Do all open systems, in fact, show robustness and resilience? If not, there is an awkward trade-off: how should individual freedoms be protected while acknowledging the shortcomings they imply for social outcomes? Recourse would no longer be available to that hoary chestnut that to guarantee systemic success, simply ensure personal freedoms.

Rigorously analysing these questions for real-world societies and entire nation states is, of course, the subject of books and research papers. For the success and failure of nations, relevant mechanisms involve multiple causes and outcomes; confounding variables are legion. However, studying the circumstances surrounding Wikipedia and Tay and online newspaper comments can provide insight, even if ultimately they might serve only as counter-example. Although they are neither natural experiment nor randomised controlled trial, they straddle the digital and the physical in a confined setting, and thus provide clean focus on variables of interest — openness and bottom-up individual action as causal mechanism; success or failure as outcome.

First, for Wikipedia, the user community grew empowered as an emergent, self-organised, self-recognised entity. The word “emergent” here is to suggest that the outcome was unplanned, and could not have been foreseen from just knowledge of the intent of any one participant. Knowledge about the average participant fails to give insight on the behaviour of the totality. Instead, the outturn can only be described at the level of the system; and that outcome turned out to be different from how, left to their own devices, any single individual might have wished to act. By contrast, for online newspapers and Tay, no emergence occurred: The community instead remained a ragtag group of fiercely independent separate individuals; further, the system itself continued to reflect accurately the actions and aims of the average, i.e., the representative agent. No positive externalities were generated.

Second, levels of hierarchy are not inconsistent with open systems, despite the emotional appeal of naive flat one-person, one-vote representation. While Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, it nonetheless hosts a small group of acknowledged facilitators and leaders in the background. Those near-invisible editors do not need to be world-leading experts on the subject in question — indeed, they cannot be — but instead are just reliable repositories of style and sense. All other input and writing remain open. This combination of openness and authority-at-a-distance both empowers and guides participants.

Third, for Wikipedia, that background authority elicited a voluntary social responsibility in the system’s participants. The successful outcome came with a surfacing of a duties-oriented thinking — one that, in effect but neither in design nor directive, prioritised the well-being of the group. In contrast, the failed outcomes produced no such social identity: if anything, individual participants remained firmly embedded in an individual rights-centric approach to engagement. Under a rights-centric system, participants should be allowed to do or say anything they want. They can say uplifting, constructive, informative things; or they can be destructive. Here, that freedom to choose produced chaos and disorder. Societies that inherit historic traditions of duties-oriented citizen participation, might more easily produce order, through drawing on an innate stability and an ethos of organisation not otherwise available in rights-centered modalities of social engagement.

But there is no iron-clad guarantee of success. It might well be exactly a sense of citizen duty too that drives those societies embarked on a potentially self-destructive nationalist populism. So also might such a sense of citizen duty be the force — so its proponents claim — for gun culture in the US. Even when guided by a duties-oriented framework, open systems can still fail.

Just as traditional views about individual rationality are challenged by behavioral economics, so too long-held thinking needs to be re-examined regarding the success of open societies. Candidates for alternative pathways to success now appear both in cross-country experience and in near-laboratory but still real-world online examples. Despite its long history and deep philosophical roots, open-society thinking now is confirmed only by checkered empirical evidence in modern reality and backed by little rigorous analytical framing. The opposite of Open Society doesn’t have to be Totalitarian Dystopia: what that means is societies might need to trade off between individual freedoms and social well-being. Some observers find that uncomfortable. But then dealing sensibly with tradeoffs is what economics is all about.

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