Beyond Transparency: from Lessig to True Levellers

Lawrence Lessig's New Republic article 'Against Transparency' really rattled the cages of transparency fans and led to a spirited defence from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, the co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation.

Lessig's opening diatribe is long-winded and sets up some straw men that Miller and Klein dispose of - like saying that transparency will increase cynicism because the public don't have the attention span to make proper judgements. I suspect the need for a complete throwdown comes from his lawyer-genes :)

But IMHO he wins out by addressing the core issue; that the only way to capitalise on transparency to increase trust is to actually change structures. So if we can never be sure whether a certain political donation did or did not influence a vote, we should take donations out of the process altogether. As Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted during the debate: "amazing how people r missing the point of @LESSIG article. disclosure useless without changing uderlying dynamics".

Despite the Sunlight folks efforts to 'annually directly train more than a thousand reporters and bloggers on how to use these datasets, tools, and sites to better inform their investigations' their aspirations stop at cleaning up the existing system. In this they follow the democracy geeks at MySociety, believing that current mechanisms would deliver fairness if only they were cleansed of unethical gunk.

For sure, we need transparency around finances, but cash is just a proxy for power. And power is a far trickier thing to map than money; it ranges from the psychological to the physical and involves us all in complex and contradictory networks. Our current institutions accrete power in ways that amplify its abuse while simultaneously producing narratives of denial.

Us liberal Twitterati have flexed our Streisand effect in the last few days to challenge the old trappings of power, in the specific shape of UK libel laws and #Trafigura. One rightful rallying cry for this was the 1688 Bill of Rights. But it's ironic that so many other flaws of our system are still glossed over, despite the fact that in the Putney Debates of 1647 the Levellers were predicting the need for a better system than the one we have.

While Sunlight say "the very idea of exposing government data feeds for outside developers is, at its core, about spurring innovation in the way we all perceive and contextualize data" I'm still troubled by The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups and the increasing tendency of information mashup initiatives to align themselves with the status quo rather than with movements for social change.

Last word goes again to @alaa: "activism that limits its ambition to exposing and reporting is useless if not harmful. work on redefining reality behind what is measured."


Observ. LIII. Of a Flea., from Micrographia by Robert Hooke