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Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.

16 Responses to “Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough”

  1. […] this essay isn’t Lessig’s most linear piece of argumentation. My friend David Weinberger offers a useful roadmap to the article, including his in-line objections. His is a more thorough overview of Lessig’s argument […]

  2. […] Shared Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough. […]

  3. […] as if content, meaning, representation and communication were all separate and distinct. And most recently a summary of Larry Lessig’s “Against Transparency” with Dave’s Objections […]

  4. For me the 2 sentences ending the article sum it up. If you stir up a swamp it won’t be a sweet-smelling experience. But Lessig is more cautionary than simply anti-transparency.

    I hope that citizens gain tools to actually help government to govern effectively. The difficulty is that transparency will also make it possible to smear any progressive developments, and there will be money to be made in that cause.

  5. […] this essay isn’t Lessig’s most linear piece of argumentation. My friend David Weinberger offers a useful roadmap to the article. His is a more thorough overview of Lessig’s argument – I’ll offer my over-brief […]

  6. […] Jetez donc un coup d’oeil aux commentaires d’Ethan Zuckerman et de David Weinberger. […]

  7. […] has written at least three posts in response to Lessig. In his first piece, a careful walkthrough, he catches Lessig’s point precisely, when he writes “We can’t fight the Net’s […]

  8. […] “Against Transparency” in “The New Republic” den Transparenz-Gedanken zwar nicht in Bausch und Bogen. Er spricht sich aber (namentlich für die Politik) deutlich für subventionierte Kontroll- und […]

  9. […] tends to flip-flop along the way so I managed to find an paraphrased and annotated version which summarizes it quite nicely. The summary contains links to the relevant sections, but I haven’t had time to […]

  10. Here’s a more important point about “transparency:”

    “Transparency” is always already game-able when private parties are as intricately interwoven with the government as they are now. One can espouse the wonders of transparency, campaign on that principle, but get very little from it because exceptions and qualifications can (and “must”) be made in the interest of those private parties who are so involved.

    So keep in mind, we’re not necessarily getting transparency in the first place. We have a law about campaign contributions. Okay. We have a drive to set up government websites with lots of information. Okay. But the real question will arise when these transparency initiatives bump up against influential private parties to whom various functions have been transferred or partially or even in some cases completely privatized and deregulated. Aside from “national security,” can the telecoms say it’s in their private interest to keep secret the wiretapping they’re doing, if they’re “agents” of the government, as the Obama DOJ claims now? Not wishing to press that point, can they nevertheless implicitly buttress that sort of claim with “national security?” Are we going to get those private interests’ influence out of government, or are we going to begin qualifying for the sake of private interests?

    Even if you’re an ardent advocate for “privatization and deregulation” you’ve still got to recognize that government, where it applies, is a public function.

    The biggest problem I had with his piece is that it just starts from assuming this relationship. Lessig doesn’t go into whether advantage and undue influence can derive from commercial interests taking part in government functions (he does keep his focus on donations, rather than: knowing who’s dealing with legislators in various ways, who meets with them, is on key committees, what are the proceedings of such discussions, who gets contracts, who’s given privileges through legislation, who gets appointments and cushy jobs — but then again, Lessig’s thesis seems to be addressing transparency as such).

    Rather than going into advantage and undue influence he just says reading intent into donations (i.e., that we know why Hillary voted in such-and-such a way based on the donations she got) is not necessarily true. Well, that’s *always* the case, first of all. You never know intent, in any circumstance, based on any evidence. Period. Some situations render better bases for deriving conclusions, but you can never actually know intent. So why must we think it comes down to that — what the parties involved were actually intending to do? We never know that anyway.

    But aside from that — even if you think it fine to have private (commercial? corporate?) interest intricately involved in the government, or think it hard or impossible to really define a distinction along those lines, etc. — the most *important* function of transparency is *recourse.*

    Yeah, some people will rant and rave about how it’s inherently wrong (which I think is a more substantive point than trying to say the legislator’s will was swayed) to either have such-and-such a biased interest (oil companies for environmental issues, for instance), or have corporate interests as such (enjoying limited liability but little accountability), involved in the business of government (or making donations). But aside from the question of the merits or practicality of those points, the main thing is that if we know who’s involved (if we know *all* relationships of those who are not appropriately established representatives accountable to the public, to the law or to the conduct of policy) — *then we have recourse.*

    We could discover that the policy doesn’t work and we could say well, that’s because we were unable to exclude the private interest, so we will enact a policy (no contracts of this type for you if you drill oil, for instance) to fix that. We could at all take recourse when the government isn’t really doing its job.

    It’s a public function. It’s government. Whether you think it should be large or small, it obviously exists to serve us all — the public. That’s why it’s transparent: so recourse exists. Recourse in the form of transparency will often fall away — but the reform will inherently claim the principle of transparency, simply by dint of that being the nature of valid government — it isn’t for private interests.

    So I can’t take Lessig’s argument too seriously because he’s only dealing at a certain level, concerned about misconstruing intention or mischaracterizing political actors, but not really dealing with the real import of the principle of transparency.

  11. […] e infatti hanno fatto molto discutere (risposte stimolanti sono arrivate, fra gli altri, da Weinberger, Zuckerman, […]

  12. I really like your articles, your composition is very good.

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  14. […] Друг коментар […]

  15. […] Transnets no post Règles pour les news + contre la transparence traz comentários de Dan Guillmor, David Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman. Enfim, gente que tem caldo e que há mais e dez anos fala da rede e do movimento […]

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