The Opaqueness of Transparency

It isn’t just perception.  Partisan politics in the U.S. really is worse than ever, if we’re to take the word of those who’ve been on the inside for the last 40 or so years. I was listening to an audio version of Tom Brokaw’s book The Time of Our Lives recently, and hearing him describe today’s dysfunctional intransigence in Washington, I began to wonder why, in the age of so much transparency and mass communications, do matters appear to be getting worse? More to the point, is it possible that we’ve created an illusion of transparency while ignoring the fact that the way we tend to use digital media produces the opposite of rational and cordial discourse among both the electors and the elected?

Brokaw writes, “…modern means of communication are now so pervasive and penetrating, they might as well be part of the air we breathe and, therefore, they require tempered remarks from all sides.  Otherwise that air just becomes more and more toxic until is is suffocating.”  Sounds a lot like the blogosphere to me.

Those who vehemently pursue transparency through technology — everyone from hacktivists to open-government scholars– offer the premise that transparency through Web technology is not only good, but a near panacea to our political ills.  And while we certainly don’t want to see our elected officials get away with crimes and misdemeanors, I’m not convinced that the theater of rapid-response outrage we’ve created does much to thwart real mischief so much as it incubates some of the more toxic viruses in day-to-day governance — namely blind partisanship and associative reasoning.

The promise of transparency is meant to be an independent voter’s ideal — that with digital access to real data, one can make unbiased decisions based on the particulars of a given situation. In theory, information trumps partisanship. Through on-demand access to raw information and fact-checks, the argument goes, we can more accurately judge our elected officials as individuals rather than broadly associating them with the views of a particular party.  So why does our national dialogue sound more and more like a cacophony of lunatics?

One problem with the case for this kind of transparency is that it assumes data are neutral, which is a very techie point of view because to a computer, of course, data are neutral and interpreted by a fairly rigid code. In human affairs, and politics in particular, data are subjective and interpreted by a code called emotion that is both subjective and dynamic. Computers like data, humans like stories. That’s why an editorial about a proposed bill in congress beats reading the bill itself and a catchy, 140-character headline beats both.

While access does exist to unbiased, raw data, this access seems to have very little to do with how Web 2.0 is affecting our political evolution. To the contrary, social media is highly emotional and is referred to as a “hive mind” for good reason. Hence, the instinct to react, not only as individuals, but as mobs has been given an outlet through these technologies.  What we often end up with is our worst political instincts on speed pretending to be a more enlightened process.  If anything, the way we use social media and blogs seems to foster more associative reasoning, which allows (or forces) all issues to be painted with very broad brushes. This is the opposite habit that transparency is meant to produce.

Look at the way the tech blogs lit up last week over Rep. Lamar Smith’s appointment to the chairmanship of the House Science Committee.  It’s one thing if Representative Smith has a dodgy record on actual science, but TechCruch and others ran headlines decrying the appointment because Smith was the lead author of SOPA.  Even if you hated that bill for what it was, calling it anti-science or anti-technology makes as much sense as calling speed limits anti-Lamborghini. It’s a straight-up cheap shot with a clear political agenda. After all, Smith is a Texas republican and the author of SOPA. So, attacking him is good for scoring points among progressives, who will never bother to make the distinction that SOPA had nothing to do with science; and neither will they bother to look up Smith’s record on science issues, even though they could with a couple of mouse clicks.  In this case, the tech blogs are behaving much like FOX News, looking at all stories through a single filter.

I bring up this example because it’s recent, but also because some of those bloggers are the same folks who proclaim the unmitigated value of transparency while using the technology to promulgate more of the opaque, associative political nonsense that makes our politics so dysfunctional.  As a side note, Smith’s record on science is relatively unclear at this point, other than past remarks doubting the veracity of some climatologists; but let’s not confuse that with bills designed to stop an international criminal enterprise, shall we?

What we think of as transparency is often a lot of reactionary noise that can literally be a barrier to a better functioning representative government. Sure there are a lot of folks in congress with some pretty wacky ideas, but why does it seem that even moderate representatives can’t sit down to rationally discuss issues that shouldn’t even be partisan in the first place? Might the digital, global microscope be a cause for divisiveness itself?  We have to imagine governing — and heaven forbid compromising! — in an environment where every syllable, every meeting, every gesture inspires instantaneous, and often erroneous, condemnation that goes viral.

Mass media, especially the blogosphere, demands conflict because humans like stories.  But representative government can only function through compromise and cooperation, which fails to satisfy multiple constituencies at any given moment — and now, they’re all on Twitter. Hence, it seems only one of two things can result from all this so-called transparency:  1) that governance stalls; or 2) that functional governance can only happen in even greater secrecy than we had before the digital age.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time technology has produced exactly the opposite conditions it promised.

It’s true that with a lot of time and effort, we can use the Internet to look objectively through a clear glass at our politics; but I suspect that most of the time, the window is truly opaque and that we’re always seeing at least a half reflection of ourselves.  If the people’s representatives are dysfunctional, then it’s possible that the people are as well.  The question remains as to how the design of these technologies might be playing a role in that dysfunction.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Fascinating stuff – the Internet may empower and inform on one hand but on the other it can become an echo chamber.

  • Representative democracy is, at bottom, about electing officials once every two, four or six years and letting them do their work But now the public doesn’t want to let people do their work, they want to be in the meeting – yet the public also doesn’t want to read the research, hear the positions and work out the logic. So you have the uninformed being manipulated by unelected players or reaching conclusions on pure emotion rather than fair consideration. Of course, this sort of transparency results in lower quality government.

  • Let me get this straight… you call out my site, Techdirt, for not “bothering to look up Smith’s record on science issues” and then posting about his appointment.

    Can we define irony for a second? Techdirt did NOT post about that appointment. At all. You made that up. Because you “didn’t bother to check” what Techdirt actually posted. And you call *us* out?

    Try harder, David. The fact that you’ve now resorted to out and out lying about us really says something..

    • Did I not see an article on TechDirt about the appointment? Because I swear I saw one last week. Regardless, if I were to outright lie about something, it would have to be for a damn good reason, and TD is in no way central to the point of this piece. Hence, what you’ve read is an error, and I shall edit the post and write a retraction pertaining to your site. Meanwhile, if TD did not write about the appointment, please accept my apology for saying otherwise.


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