Disinfecting the swamp

November 1, 2009

I found a link on my regular en.europa-eu-audience mailing entitled “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” but it didn’t take me directly to the source, so first time around I ignored it! Receiving the mail again on Saturday morning, when there was little other news, I trawled a bit further and found it. It’s an article  in The New Republic by Lawrence Lessig, Professor at Harvard Law School and takes a more objective view of the whole business than is generally the case. His view of open data argument is that  “The naked transparency movement marries the power of network technology to the radical decline in the cost of collecting, storing, and distributing data. Its aim is to liberate that data, especially government data, so as to enable the public to process it and understand it better, or at least differently.”

He concludes with “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.”

I find the article reverberates around some of the reasons e-democracy, e-governance etc never seem to get anywhere in a hurry, which I could believe, if I was completely cynical, is because the powers that be, in representative government, would,  be draining their own money-pits, whilst creating a more uneven society run by propellor-heads and their friends (digital exclusion).

If one gets into full socio-philosophical mode and starts considering agency and the structure of society, it’s all too easy to envisage the good and bad that could occur when clearing the swamp, to use Lessig analogy. I remember years ago when skydiving near Ampuriabrava in Spain that the area was alive with mosquitos that when someone had used DDT to get rid of them, instead it killed off their predators, letting the mosquitos rule in peace. I guess that’s what Lessig is concerned about?


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