Managing Expectations

We’re big on promoting open information: be that sonnets, statistics, genes or geodata. We’re big on it because we think it has the potential to improve the welfare of peoples around the world in a variety of ways, from making governments more accountable to improving research on cancer.

At the same time I think it is important that we, and others, are **realistic about what will be achieved and on what time-scale**. This can be a difficult thing to say. Often, to get people to travel with you, you have to sell them a grand vision of how whatever you are doing will revolutionize things overnight. But most changes, especially big ones, are more gradual.

Think of the celebrated **invention of the printing press, today often compared to the invention of the computer**. The printing press did, ultimately, produce a “revolution” and wrought plenty of change. **But it didn’t happen overnight**. What is more, the effect of the printing press on, say, the balance of political power or even more prosaic matters like literacy was by no means immediate. **Change occurred over a period of decades or centuries and was often dependent on the evolution of a complex set of complementary institutions and technologies**.

Printer_in_1568-ce

Similar patterns can be seen for another fundamental technological development: electricity. Legend has it that when Faraday first demonstrated an electric effect at the Royal Society in the 1830s, Gladstone questioned whether it was not just a scientific curiosity given its lack of obvious applications — to which Faraday famously replied: “What good is a baby?”. **It took over a century for electricity to reach anything like its full potential**.

Michael Faraday delivering a lecture in 1856

Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. Whilst we live in a much accelerated age compared to 15th century Germany or 19th century England, we probably still need to think on a **time-scale of decades if we are going to see the full effects of the new *open* approaches to the creation and sharing of knowledge — approaches that we have only just begun to explore**.

**This is the first of two posts on this topic by Rufus Pollock, a Founder and Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, and a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow.**