Towards an institutional understanding of the ‘cultural agoraphobia’ bias

As seen on the Public Library of Science blog, Prof James Boyle has been arguing in his book The Public Domain (read for free) and a recent talk for Arcadia that society is biased against openness.

Grid-group cultural theory contributes a number of factors to this discussion, as follows…

  1. A bias against the openness characterised by the ‘open source movement’ is already well understood by grid-group cultural theory. Using the grid-group typology, this ‘openness’ is distinctly Egalitarian in tone and organisation. The ‘environmental analogy’ in Chapter 10 of Boyle’s book is predicted and expanded by grid-group cultural theory: from this perspective, of course public domain activists could learn something from the environmental movement. It is already well understood that it will be opposed by Individualist, Hierarchical and Fatalist institutional arrangements.
  2. If Boyle’s ‘cultural agoraphilia’ is a product of Egalitarianism, it follows that there is not one, but three forms of cultural agoraphobia opposing it, and each ‘fears’ different aspects of the public domain. By identifying these different fears, open source can reassure doubters as appropriate.
  3. The ‘bias’ discussion deriving from Kahnemann and Tversky and taken up by behavioural psychology and economics is distinctly a product of methodological individualism. In other words, Grid-group cultural theory would interpret it as intrinsically Individualist. This means that to characterise ‘cultural agoraphobia’ as a defective personal bias in need of fixing is to concede too much ground to Individualist approaches to social organisation more generally.
  4. Perhaps the solution to the open access/closed acces debate is not to try to polarize it further by pathologizing opponents, but to attempt ‘clumsy solutions’ – methods that take pieces of more than one cultural bias and apply them. In terms of academic publishing there is a growing menu of ‘hybrid’ open-closed models emerging, such as Bloomsbury Academic, and Tizra, which publishes MIT comp sci books with free options.

The upshot is that we need to ask where the ‘cultural agoraphobia’ resides – is it in people’s heads, or in society’s organisations? To depict it as a psychological bias, as per behavioural psychology is to slant the concept, and therefore its remedy, too far towards the personal, the interior, and to risk overlooking the institutional arrangements that enable such a bias to be socially viable. The obvious answer, of course, is that to the extent that ‘cultural agoraphobia’ exists, it is both personal and institutional, and as such it is primarily interpersonal or relational.

Furthermore, we need a more nuanced appraisal of the open source debate. To see the open source movement as an Egalitarian plot is quite correct. It is in a sense an Egalitarian plot. So what to Boyle seems like a pathological cultural agarophobia, is from the perspective of other  cultural biases, a quite reasonable scepticism. Note that Grid-group cultural theory uses the term ‘bias’ but not in a pejorative way. We need biases in order to make sense of our environment.

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