Joho the Blog » triumphalism

October 13, 2009

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.

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