Privacy and intellectual property thinker Lawrence Lessig has a great (and lengthy) essay on government transparency in the October 21, 2009, The New Republic.

To be sure, Lessig is by no means anti-transparency (nor am I, occasional snipes to the contrary). That said, some of his observations warrant deeper consideration. (For the record, I'm not suggesting that Lessig's article applies to transparency in Wayland with its unpaid volunteer government structure.) A selection of these thoughts follow.

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. ... 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.


The problem, however, is that not all data satisfies the simple requirement that they be information that consumers can use, presented in a way they can use it. "More information," as [Archon] Fung and his colleagues put it, "does not always produce markets that are more efficient." Instead, "responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it.


[Refuting false allegations, in this case regarding the propriety or lack thereof of federal campaign contributions made visible by transparency] 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.

To digress briefly, this observation speaks to what I call the "quick lie/complicated truth" conundrum. John McCain fell victim to this peril in South Carolina in 2000, as captured succinctly by The Nation: "[Karl] Rove invented a uniquely injurious fiction for his operatives to circulate via a phony poll. Voters were asked, 'Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain...if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?' This was no random slur. McCain was at the time campaigning with his dark-skinned daughter, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh. "

All the truth-telling in the world wouldn't have resolved McCain's bind--there simply wasn't the attention span to hear it. Back to Lessig's essay ...

The point ... 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


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.

Upon reconsideration, perhaps Lessig's does apply to Wayland. In essence, money (of the meaningful campaign contribution type) is already structurally removed from the system. As such, transparency won't reveal the appearance of (money-driven) impropriety (not that anyone has argued against Wayland transparency for this reason), and therefore, objections to transparency are harder to come by.

I'm not at all convinced that I've made my point clearly, or even that I really had a point beyond sharing an interesting and thought-provoking essay. As always, I'm interested in people's reactions, in this case on Lessig's ideas as well as any I've managed to get across.