Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The down side of transparency - people always assume the worst

I've been avoiding reading Larry Lessig's treatise "Against Transparency" primarily because I couldn't devote the required time and attention span to it and because I knew I'd feel obliged to comment on it when I did.  Essentially he is pointing out the obvious that, in the internet age, transparency in relation to government, on its own, leads to people always interpretating the information revealed in the worst possible light, confirming what we "already knew" about that dishonest, self-serving bunch of politicians anyway.  The result is to undermine trust in government institutions.  His "solution" is to remove corporate funding from politics.

"This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something--an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence-- requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding--at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency…

Once we have named it, you will begin to see the attention-span problem everywhere, in public and private life. Think of politics, increasingly the art of exploiting attention-span problems--tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze. Think of any complex public policy issue, from the economy to debates about levels of foreign aid.
Even the increased demand for "privacy" in acts that one commits in public-- activities on the Internet, for example--might best be explained by the attention span problem. Consider, for example, a story by Peter Lewis in The New York Times in 1998:

Surveillance cameras followed the attractive young blond woman through the lobby of the midtown Manhattan hotel, kept a glassy eye on her as she rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor and peered discreetly down the hall as she knocked at the door to my room. I have not seen the videotapes, but I can imagine the digital readout superimposed on the scenes, noting the exact time of the encounter. That would come in handy if someone were to question later why this woman, who is not my wife, was visiting my hotel room during a recent business trip. The cameras later saw us heading off to dinner and to the theater--a middle-aged, married man from Texas with his arm around a pretty East Village woman young enough to be his daughter…. As a matter of fact, she is my daughter.

"Privacy" here would hardly be invoked for the purpose of hiding embarrassing facts. Quite the contrary: the hidden facts here are the most innocent or loving. Yet it would hide these facts because we may be certain that few would take the time to understand them enough to see them as innocent.

The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological. It is what we would hope everyone would do, if everyone were rational about how best to deploy their time. Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.

In the context of public officials, however, the solutions are obvious, and old, and eminently tractable. If the problem with transparency is what might be called its structural insinuations--its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always--then the obvious solution is to eliminate those insinuations and those suggestions. A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money. Perhaps it was because he was stupid. Perhaps it was because he was liberal, or conservative. Perhaps it was because he failed to pay attention to the issues at stake. Whatever the reason, each of these reasons is democracy-enhancing. They give the democrat a reason to get involved, if only to throw the bum out. And by removing what is understood to be an irrelevant factor--money--the desire to get involved is not stanched by the cynicism that stifles so much in the current system...

But the objective of these proposals is not, or should not be, fairness. The objective should be trustworthiness. The problem that these bills address is that we have a Congress that nobody trusts--a Congress that, in the opinion of the vast majority of the American people, sells its results to the highest bidder. The aim of these proposals should be to change that perception by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results. In this way we can eliminate the possibility of influence that nourishes the cynicism that is anyway inevitable when technology makes it so simple to imply an endless list of influence.

As with ProPublica or nonprofit newspapers, or a "cultural flat-rate," or a compulsory license to compensate for file-sharing, proposals for public funding can thus be understood as a response to an unavoidable pathology of the technology--its pathological transparency--that increasingly rules our lives and our institutions. Without this response--with the ideal of naked transparency alone--our democracy, like the music industry and print journalism generally, is doomed. The Web will show us every possible influence. The most cynical will be the most salient. Limited attention span will assure that the most salient is the most stable. Unwarranted conclusions will be drawn, careers will be destroyed, alienation will grow. No doubt we will rally to the periodic romantic promising change (such as Barack Obama), but nothing will change.

Likewise with transparency. There is no questioning the good that transparency creates in a wide range of contexts, government especially. But we should also recognize that the collateral consequence of that good need not itself be good. And if that collateral bad is busy certifying to the American public what it thinks it already knows, we should think carefully about how to avoid it. Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant. But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well."

Unsurprisingly there has been a wide ranging response from the great and the good, including Tim Wu, David Weingberger, Ethan Zuckerman and many others.  All well worth a read.

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