Lawrence Lessig Abandons Transparency Fundamentalism, Finally

Oh my god… unlimited transparency, openness, and “democratization” are not automatically good things? That’s the conclusion that Lawrence Lessig seems to have finally come to, years and years late, in a recent article at The New Republic. Here’s a quote:

How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement –“- if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness“ — will inspire not reform, but disgust. The “naked transparency movement,” as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

You have “come to worry”, only now? At the end of 2009? Not years ago, when the arguments were already out there that maybe transparency should be conducted intelligently and selectively rather than applied universally and unconditionally? You are the intellectual leader of the “naked transparency movement”. You’d better speak more harshly to your followers in numerous other articles, or they won’t get the point.

I am slapping my forehead right now. Transparency and openness have become a cult. Corporate marketing campaigns pander to this cult relentlessly. It is the ultimate ego trip. The thinking goes like this: everything is better when the common person, namely me, can stick my fingers in every pie and contribute to every decision-making process. This way of thinking is profoundly wrong. It assumes that everyone is equally good at everything. There is a reason we have experts and specialists. Though in some domains, experts are just as good as anyone (such as clinical psychology), in many domains, expert knowledge and skills matter.

Lawrence Lessig has been the #1 promoter of the idea of “perfect openness” “without any sensitivity to the idea” for years. Now he is backpedaling. For an example of Lessig’s run-amok openness obsession, see his debate with Andrew Keen, where he behaves like a rude asshole. The core of Lessig’s fanbase is a culture of nerds who think that everything is better when they personally get to control part of it.

There was a moment several months ago when I remember a transhumanist blogger remarking “what about the power of crowdsourcing?”, or “so much for the power of crowdsourcing”, or something along those lines, when a democratic poll on some topic obviously revealed a crappy answer. It’s like he was genuinely shocked that “crowdsourcing” (a silly buzzword if I ever saw one) didn’t automatically lead to the best answer. Surprise! We’re in an era and memetic environment where even suggesting that unlimited transparency and “crowdsourcing” aren’t obviously good things is certain to generate accusations of elitism and even Luddism.

One argument goes like this: the Internet has been making things more open, and the Internet has made a lot of things better. Therefore, more openness is always better, and both openness and betterness will continue indefinitely and inevitably. This (mistaken) way of thinking is called Whig history. The truth is that the Internet has made certain things more open, and made certain things better, but the correlation between these two is not precise, and just because something is a historical trend doesn’t make it benevolent.

Would you prefer for the blueprints for an atom bomb to be transparent? How about the 1918 Spanish flu genome? The latter has already happened. Some people believe that the former circulates as well.

Comments

  1. Transparency isn’t always about controlling things directly yourself. It may also be about establishing, gaining or losing reputation.

    In the perfectly transparent society even if someone obtained the blueprints for building a nuclear bomb, and had the materials to hand, others would be able to see what they were doing and raise the alarm.

    Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfectly transparent society, nor does one seem to be achievable without major invasions of privacy which most people would reject. So perhaps it is a good idea that some things remain secret, but in the age of ubiquitous information keeping anything secret for very long is becoming increasingly problematic.

    There is definitely a need for much greater transparency in public life, and in financial affairs. This does seem to be occurring, although at a pace slower than many would wish for.

  2. Dustin

    While I’m generally in the favor of the idea that transparency isn’t universally good this next part made me go “huh?”

    The thinking goes like this: everything is better when the common person, namely me, can stick my fingers in every pie and contribute to every decision-making process. This way of thinking is profoundly wrong. It assumes that everyone is equally good at everything. There is a reason we have experts and specialists. Though in some domains, experts are just as good as anyone (such as clinical psychology), in many domains, expert knowledge and skills matter.

    What?

    Think about this some more, please.

    Transparency, as almost always referred to today, means revealing info. It rarely, if ever, means letting any Joe Blow make steering decisions for others. It’s point is to let help people make better decisions for themselves.

    You’re right that experts are important, but transparency doesn’t get rid of experts, it gives people insight into what experts are doing.

  3. Dustin

    Additionally, while Lessig’s article is entitled “Against Transparency” in the end he reveals that he’s not against transparency at all! He’s against the way our institutions are currently set up, because when their inner workings are revealed it gives us ambiguous insights into people’s actions.

  4. RobQ

    –Would you prefer for the blueprints for an atom bomb
    –to be transparent? How about the 1918 Spanish flu
    –genome? The latter has already happened. Some people
    –believe that the former circulates as well.

    Since perfect secrecy is out, and you don’t like perfect transparency, what do you recommend?

  5. Although nobody makes a brief for ignorance generally, there are many special cases in which ignorance is cultivated—in order, for example, to protect national security, sexual innocence, jury impartiality; to preserve anonymity for patients, clients, reviewers, and voters; to create suspense in films and novels; to protect trade secrets; to measure the placebo effect and avoid various research biases; and to create mental challenges for gaming and study.

    http://www.nickbostrom.com/information-hazards.pdf

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