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Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism

Plenty is being written already trying to parse, understand, and come to terms with Larry Lessig’s article “Against Transparency” in the New Republic. Ethan Zuckerman does his usual outstanding job in clarifying ideas sympathetically. Transparency advocate Carl Malamud responds to Lessig. I presented my own “walkthrough” of the article. The New Republic has run Tim Wu‘s response, which agrees with Lessig in important ways. The New Republic has also run four other responses, including an excellent response from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, founders of the Sunlight Foundation, the leading advocate for transparency. (My response is included in that set of four.) Aaron Swartz prefigured Larry’s argument in a piece he posted in April: “Transparency is bunk.” Plenty to chew on.

I want to briefly expand on the article’s import.

At the end, Larry expands his own argument to cover “Internet triumphalism.” Over the past couple of years, we’ve been seeing Net triumphalism waning, at least in the circles I travel in. Triumphalism is the notion that the war has been won. It’s over. Net triumphalism thinks that the new tech is in place, cannot be removed, and will change everything. It thus includes Net techno-determinism, i.e., the idea that the mere presence of the Net has predictable, determinate, and inevitable effects. Triumphalism adds: Yay!

Net triumphalism seemed more plausible back in the days when the demographics of the participants were pretty homogeneous, masking the role culture played in the homogeneous effects the Net was having. As regimes have censored the Net in ways the Net has not routed around, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and then Clay Shirky showed us that the Net tends towards the old patterns of unequal influence, as the mere networked presence of Howard Dean supporters failed to end GW Bush’s reign of error, naive Internet Triumphalism has become unsupportable. As Joe Trippi said, we need mouse pads and shoe leather. As Aaron Swartz says, we need narrative journalism as well as the Web. As Larry Lessig says, we need political reform as well as the Web. Indeed, as Aaron and Larry point out, the sunlight of transparency casts shadows as well.

I think “Against Transparency” misidentifies the source of the threat and undervalues the benefits of transparency-as-the-default, even as I agree with Larry’s cautions and his policy agenda. I nevertheless think it is one more marker in incremental extirpation of Internet triumphalism. Some of the pain reading his article causes old-time Net enthusiasts like me comes from that. It’s the right pain to feel, even if we disagree with the particularities of Larry’s article.

22 Responses to “Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism”

  1. […] seen is very provocative (in a good sense.)All the pointers you might need can be found here: Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism from Joho the Blog: "Plenty is being written already trying to parse, understand, and come to […]

  2. If increased openness leads to a complacency about our mastery of what is going on, to an illusory sense that now we know what we need to know, then such openness, by itself, is insufficient.

    What is worrying Lessig seems to be two things, primarily:

    1. The important stuff usually evades the databases – no question. Cf the mob, which runs large enterprises with very little in the way of recorded signalling.

    2. A greater quantity of mere fact offers the potential for more distortion or outright deception. This worried Socrates a long time ago.

    We might also want to advert to Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion), who knew from illusory knowledge.

    The essential thing not broached is the question of evolving high level analytical tools, modes of discernment, that can parse, find significant patterns, enable judgments that are complex, comprehensive, and well founded.

    For USians, that last bit is pretty much undiscovered territory. Perhaps it’s what Aaron Swartz had in mind by returning to narrative journalism.

  3. […] of control over info…. We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect.” In a second piece, Weinberger both gets and misses this point . He’s correct in noting that, in warning of the […]

  4. […] в два последователни текста [1] u [2] защитава позиция, че Лесиг неправилно определя […]

  5. […] 2009We help you find the perfect gadget | Measy October 23, October 23, 2009Joho the Blog » Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism October 23, 2009Technology and Education – Box of Tricks October 23, 2009» Tools for an Open […]

  6. […] David Weinberger, Greater transparency will build – not diminish – the public’s trust, and Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism […]

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