Dan Knauss replied to the topic How should we approach transparency in government? in the forum Forum Discussions 9 years, 10 months ago
David, I don’t know if Lessig really wants or thinks he (or anyone) can have the role of prophet and dictator of mass societal outcomes. I’m going to assume he simply wants to sound a warning about under-examined negative outcomes that are possible and has just overdone the hand-wringing a bit.
I agree with you that we are already “there” and can’t “stop,” least of all because some people fear the political and social outcomes–which is really just a question of who gets/loses advantages, disadvantages, power, wealth, etc. But I share Lessig’s view that the path ahead is probably not as rosy or as manageable as you think.
Lessig’s concern about transparency leading to information overload, confusion, and the seeds of a broken social contract, if not insurrection, is probably valid and likely to be borne out by history. The question of whether an unused “transparency” is really “transparent,” or if its net effects will be very harmful (to whom and according to whom?), are worth thought but not reasons in themselves for doing or not doing anything with regard to “opening” things up because they are and only can be hypotheticals shaped by particular people with particular interests. That’s a political fight we can and probably will have.
Lessig is definitely noting a real set of new problems–or rather the kind of problems Clay Shirky has associated with the 100 Years’ War at the dawn of western modernity when similar technological/communications/social/political upheaval was at work. Notably Shirky predicts a new era of increasing political corruption at city and county levels–see his recent talk with the Nieman Lab:
Nobody else seems to want to go there, but that’s the fully story: the alleged age of transparency is emerging amid a simultaneous emergence of deep political, social, and economic disorder at every level of the Pax Americana, from Kirkuk to Detroit. This is a good discussion to have.
The “new confusion” is already here. It will continue to evolve and be managed in a rather complex way marked by a lack of credible, public-interest oriented mediating institutions. Numerous partisan and private/special interest voices will probably continue to crowd out the beleaguered “mainstream media” as the game changes. The new masters of information will probably be outfits like Forrester and a “press” that looks more like the Financial Times than the New York Times.
With the decline of the middle class and traditional journalistic institutions, there is a decreasing organized interest in and aptitude for public interest analysis of any kind. Our whole concept and practice of “the public” itself has long been constituted around (at least officially) those two mutually supporting institutions, so in a very real sense the public is dying. A new one will emerge–probably around the institutions and practices that evolve to deal with all the new data and information that is coming online. But for the time being there is a growing vacuum–a power vacuum–between business and government, and between both and the average American. I do not think it is likely that the average American or her interests will strongly shape the new mediating institutions and practices that arrive.
What’s the average American? 72% are in low-income employed families. 60% are in low-income working families that pay 1/3 or more of their income for housing. (http://www.workingpoorfamilies.org) Their political representatives along with the owners of the major media organs are in the 1% or the population that holds nearly all the wealth, i.e. people who have adjusted to and capitalized on the shift to a post-industrial, globalized, financial economy–i.e., the economy that has left most Americans poor, out of work, or facing declining wages and jobs.
That’s not to suggest a simple rich vs. poor equation is going to play out in fantasy extremes, like John Ford’s vision of a world without George Bailey/altruistic public interest institutions with working class loyalties. The NYT and the FT don’t represent two opposite forces, like “the people” vs. “big business,” but they are different in what they do or don’t do with data and their freedom to access it. See for example this recent item in an FT blog suggesting the inevitability of depression in an inflated economy that produces little but debt: http://blogs.ft.com/economistsforum/2009/10/a-second-great-depressi… The author’s point is this prospect is bad for business–stated as one businessman or invstor to another–not that it’s going to ruin Joe Blow’s home value, make his neighborhood really dangerous, and generally decrease his upward mobility–and that of his kids. The real world ramifications of having less of that kind of conversation–which is just the culmination of a very long trend–are serious.
Poll of the Week
Could your inbox use a little more awesome?
Sign up to get a daily dose of awesome gov-focused resources, trainings, blogs and articles to help you do you job better.