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On connecting the dots – a response to Lessig on transparency

Celebrated legal scholar, intellectual property activist and now congressional reformer Lawrence Lessig has written a provocative and somewhat surprising article in this month’s New Republic. Titled “Against Transparency“, the article questions whether a move towards increasing government transparency – as advocated by President Obama as a candidate and by nonprofit groups like the Sunlight Foundation – will lead towards better government or, as he fears, towards cynicism, disinterest and disengagement from the political process.

It’s a surprising essay not just because Lessig is on the advisory board of Sunlight, an organization that seems firmly in his crosshairs in this piece. (Not only does he open the piece with a story about a Sunlight Foundation project that Lessig doesn’t think will lead towards positive social change, he spends significant time through the piece analyzing Justice Brandeis’s quote “sunlight is … the best of disinfectants,” from which the Sunlight Foundation takes its name.) Lessig has been one of the leading thinkers exploring the future of cultural production in a digital age and firmly believes that laws and norms need to adapt to changes brought about by new technology. Why would Lessig – Lessig! – be pushing back against the well-meaning folks in the transparency movement who are trying to use new technologies to give all citizens access to government information?

Unfortunately, this essay isn’t Lessig’s most linear piece of argumentation. My friend David Weinberger offers a useful roadmap to the article. His is a more thorough overview of Lessig’s argument – I’ll offer my over-brief summary below, with a suggestion that you read both the original piece and David’s summary:

– The rise of digital tools and a push towards government transparency will lead to huge amounts of government data to be available online.

– It’s possible to misunderstand this data, especially data about lobbying and political campaign financing. It’s too easy to assume that because money changed hands that the money in question bought a vote.

– Because transparency efforts will lead us to conclude that our political system – and perhaps our medical system – are corrupt, they run the danger of creating a disengaged and cynical populous, the opposite of what transparency advocates want to create.

– Since money in politics can be a corrupting influence – and likely is in some fraction of the cases identified via transparency efforts – we should work towards public financing of congressional elections, not just making the current system more transparent.

So perhaps the argument is an “and”, not a “rather than” – transparency systems need not be bad things, but they’re unlikely to solve the American crisis of confidence in Congress by themselves. As Weinberger points out, we might embrace the transparency movement, but work to draw accurate conclusions from the data released, not just the hasty, knee-jerk ones Lessig worries we’ll make.

I was in agreement with Weinberger (as I so often am) until I got another, unrelated email. This came from my friend Mohammed Nanabhay, the head of New Media for Al Jazeera. He’d stumbled on an article on Freedom News, a blog with a strong right wing tone. The article was titled “Lawrence Lessig- Creative Commons & Obama Tech advisor ties 2 Mohamed Nanabhay”. Here’s my quick summary of that article:

– Lessig, who’s a tech advisor to “Barack Hussein Obama”, founded something called Creative Commons.

– Al Jazeera is a “client” of Creative Commons.

– Al Jazeera’s online presence is maintained by a guy named Mohamed Nanabhay, who has other presences online.

– In one of Nanabhay’s other online identities – his twitter feed – he posted a link to a story that could be (mis)read as being pro-Hamas.

I got forwarded the article because Mohamed found the allegedly pro-Hamas article from my Twitter feed. It’s by Gary Brecher, a regular columnist for Moscow newspaper, The Exiled, and while it’s blunt, raw and more than a little cynical, it’s hardly an endorsement of Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group, as the Freedom News article suggests.

But that doesn’t matter in the context of the Freedom News article. This form of connect-the-dots “journalism” makes arguments by connecting people you don’t know about (Lessig) to bad people you do know (Obama, Al Jazeera) and offering “proof” of those people’s badness via other people, places or media they’re connected with. The argument doesn’t work well unless you’re convinced of the presumptions behind it – unless you find Al Jazeera threatening, you’re unlikely to be particularly worried that Lessig’s project is being used by the network… and if you know anything about Creative Commons, you know that Larry’s got a lot of “clients”. (In case it’s not clear, I think that both Obama and Al Jazeera are the good guys, and support them, Lessig and all aspects of a pro-Marxist, anti-freedom, blame-America-first agenda.)

Of course, if Lessig’s secret pro-Hamas tendencies don’t convince you he’s a bad guy, here’s a Freedom News story about the video he presented at Google of Jesus getting hit by a bus. The video is pretty charming, actually, and it’s by Javier Prato. Lessig was making a point about the importance of fair use, as the clip relies on Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit, “I Will Survive.” But that’s not the point – Lessig is a evil monster who advocates that Jesus be revived, dressed in a diaper, paraded through Hollywood and hit by a Los Angeles bus. Should this man really be advising us on technology policy?

While the connect-the-dots strategy is common on some right wing blog sites, it’s becoming increasingly common across media. It was the basic strategy behind the Obama/Reverend Jeremiah Wright story: Obama is a member of Wright’s congregation and Wright is a bad guy, as evidenced by controversial comments he made about race, which means that Obama endorses everything Wright ever has and will say, and is therefore a racist, bad guy. This particular bit of connect-the-dots didn’t come from fringe bloggers – it was put forward by ABC News.

The left’s done its share of dot-connecting as well. They Rule was a prize-winning data visualization by Josh On, which showed the boards of directors of Fortune 500 corporations and made it easy for users to see which directors served on multiple boards, or which corporations had interlocking boards of directors. You might read interlocking directorship as an indication that certain skills are required to oversee the management of a company… or you might read it as evidence of a class of secretive oligarchs who control corporate America from the shadows. The title of the visualization and the portrayal of board members as men in suits who appear fatter if they’re serving on multiple boards, might prompt the latter response.

The problem with connect-the-dots is not that it’s a bad journalism technique – much excellent investigative journalism has been done by connecting the dots. The danger is that it’s an easy technique to misuse, and you’re more likely to misuse it if you’ve got an axe to grind. Perhaps the scariest form of misuse I know of today is taking place in Iran, where interrogators are forcing confessions from political prisoners, knitting together details from their lives into complex conspiracy theories centered on the recent green revolution. These narratives are based on real-world connections – they have an air of truth because the interpersonal relationships are real ones – but the motives implied are manufactured to support a paranoid and conspiratorial worldview. Omid Memarian, an Iranian blogger and independent journalist, has been imprisoned and forced to confess and explains to This American Life that he was forced by his interrogators to recast the actual details of his life into paranoid fantasy worthy of a Tom Clancy novel.

Lessig points out that transparency tools promise to generate a great deal more information that can lead towards dot-connecting exposés. Some of these are likely to lead to valuable journalistic followups – others may reveal connections that look improper but turn out to have reasonable explanation. Lessig offers a story about Hillary Clinton’s changing stance on a bankruptcy bill. Lessig shows us how Clinton’s position changed, first in influencing her husband’s decision as First Lady, and then voting twice as a Senator. He points out that there might be good reasons for Clinton to have changed her opinion (perhaps the fact that she was representing the state that hosts Wall Street), but notes that the knowledge that Clinton took $140,000 in contributions from the credit card industry tend to eliminate any doubts in a reader’s mind. We’re all good Wu-Tang Clan disciples – we assume that cash rules, and that Clinton’s vote was based on the contributions, not on any other possible factors.

Lessig’s argument might be stronger if he was able to explain why Clinton voted the way she did, independent of possible financial influence. Instead, he ducks, suggesting instead that we’re unlikely to really want the long explanation, citing “attention-span problems”, which he sees as systematic and likely to damage the body politic by removing context from connections and correlations. In other words, even if there were a good explanation for Clinton’s actions, we’d probably miss it, because our attention span leads us to accept a believable connection, even if it’s not the accurate connection.

I hope Lessig’s wrong, because if he’s right, even campaign finance reform won’t save us from the excesses of connecting the dots and guilt by association. Make every political campaign publicly financed, and we’ll still find connections that make us suspicious and mistrustful. We’ll pay more attention to who congresspeople meet with, where they spend their time, what jobs they accept after leaving office. Some of those correlations will be newsworthy and worth investigating – others will be coincidental and explainable by other factors, including a congressperson’s interest in the issues. If we tend to pay attention to sensational explanations, or explanations that align with our ideological preferences, and discount more reasonable, more thought through explanations, we’re in real danger of losing faith in our government, because the trend towards increased transparency is likely to be irreversible.

Carl Malamud, a constant advocate for access to US government data, writes in response to Lessig, arguing that Lessig’s article isn’t an attack on the transparency movement, but a need to locate transparency in a larger framework of good governance efforts. Malamud, like Lessig, quotes Brandeis: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

In other words, while we should embrace the tools that allow us to connect dots (the blogs, the databases, the fruits of the transparency movement), we are challenged to understand the dangers of our own zeal, as well as that of those that surround us. The solution is not to fight against transparency, or even for the reform of campaign finance – it’s to understand that a world in which we can all connect dots and share our zeal, we all need to learn how to read and listen in a way that’s careful, cautious and skeptical, especially when the data we see leads to the conclusions we’d like to draw.