Tag Archives: Lawrence Lessig

Nation-state gives way to city-state?

More future politics, courtesy SlashDot: excerpts from a speech by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and former Grateful Dead songsmith), in which he states that the mechanics of national government in the US is failing because it’s swamped by too much data, and that a move back to the city-state model may be on the cards:

“The political system is broken partly because of Internet,” Barlow said. “It’s made it impossible to govern anything the size of the nation-state. We’re going back to the city-state. The nation-state is ungovernably information-rich.”


Barlow also said that President Barack Obama’s election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well.

“It’s not the second coming, everything won’t get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things,” Barlow said. “The government could finally start belonging to people eventually.”


“There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is incredibly thick” Barlow said. “We can no longer try to run this country from the center. We’ve got to run it, just like the Internet, from the edges.”

I expect Barlow’s quintessential hippie credentials will invalidate his ideas for some, but I think he’s on to something here. I’m no mathematician, but I suspect that the resources needed to maintain centralised control of any system will rise exponentially in proportion to the complexity and size of said system; in effect, we’re trying to run huge nations using software that can’t scale up effectively enough to cope.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that governments will be keen to devolve into federations of city-states; large systems gain a sort of momentum, and develop subroutines to protect their integrity and position of control. But perhaps the economic phase shift that some pundits are saying is just round the corner will leave them with little choice; at some point, it may simply be the path of least resistance (not to mention least resource expenditure) to let small communities hive off and self-manage within the loose framework of a (global? continental?) federal constitution. As Barlow points out, we have the technology to make such a world possible; it’s the lock-in compatibility issues of the current socio-politicall operating system that will prevent such a change from happening.

Related: responding to the UK government’s sudden embracing of transparency, Aditya Chakrabortty at The Guardian wonders whether it’s going to do as much good as its advocates hope:

Who could be against see-through government? After all, it feels so democratic and bipartisan (civil servants privately admit that they had already prepared the pay document for former Labour minister Liam Byrne), and it feels so modish and internet-friendly. But the mistake that is being made here is assuming that merely pumping out information is an end in itself, which doesn’t require context or any consideration of what it’s in aid of.

That might sound odd coming from a journalist, but it’s an argument that’s gaining traction in other quarters too. Last year, the American legal scholar Larry Lessig wrote an essay called Against Transparency. It made precisely the opposite case that you might expect from a stalwart of the transparency movement. In the face of all Barack Obama’s promises of greater openness, Lessig argued that more and more information released “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations” would be harmful both to political debate and in the end to the ability of government to get things done (the example he used was campaign donations).

[ We talked about the Lessig article here at the time. ]

Beyond the bash-the-public-sector headlines, all this transparency is most helpful to those who are already able and willing to use it – that is, with the internet connections and time to sift through all the data. And, researchers have found, those tend to be the same relatively well-off and highly educated people who are already pretty well served by the public sector. As Tobias Escher at Oxford University puts it: “You end up giving more of a voice to those who already have pretty good representation.

There’s also another concern, namely the sizeable number of people who simply don’t care to find out how their government works, though one might argue that they’ve dug their own hole. But the point remains – transparency isn’t going to be a panacea to the problems of large-scale nation-state governance. If anything, it’s just providing greater amounts of evidence for the underlying problem: a system too large and complex for anyone to fully understand, let alone begin to fix. That said, I’d rather the data was available than not, even if it’s analysed primarily for pillorying the public sector for headline-worthy misdemeanours (while more complex but fundamental issues are ignored because they lack a narrative hook or easy non-partisan explanation).

The times, they are a-changin’

The transparency trap: why open government might be worse than closed

shattered bulbIf you’d asked me to make a list of people I thought would be opposed to political transparency and “open government”, Lawrence Lessig would not have appeared in my top hundred. But here he is, writing at The New Republic, saying that while the intentions of government transparency movements are good, there may be serious negative repercussions [image by Kyle May]:

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.

(I don’t know that I have much faith left in mine to lose, frankly – by the time you Statesiders read this post, you’ll probably also be hearing a whole lot about the Trafigura/Guardian gagging order. I’ll not bother linking it; just look at the trending topics on Twitter. And as a commenter at MetaFilter pointed out: “Well, we’ve tried invisible corruption and back-room dealing for so long, why dismiss transparency without even really trying it?” But anyway, back to Lessig…)

There is a type of transparency project that should raise more questions than it has–in particular, projects that are intended to reveal potentially improper influence, or outright corruption. Projects such as the one that the health care bill would launch–building a massive database of doctors who got money from private interests; or projects such as the ones (these are the really sexy innovations for the movement) to make it trivially easy to track every possible source of influence on a member of Congress, mapped against every single vote that the member has made. These projects assume that they are seeking an obvious good. No doubt they will have a profound effect. But will the effect of these projects–at least on their own, unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations–really be for the good? Do we really want the world that they righteously envisage?


The point is salience, and the assumptions of our political culture. At this time the judgment that Washington is all about money is so wide and so deep that among all the possible reasons to explain something puzzling, money is the first, and most likely the last, explanation that will be given. It sets the default against which anything different must fight. And this default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.

But will not this supposed salience of money–the faithful disciple of Brandeis asks–simply inspire more debate about whether in fact money buys results in Congress? Won’t more people enter to negate the default? Like a rash of flat-earth defenders, won’t the attention cause round-earth truth to spread? Again, we must keep our intuitions guided by the concrete. No doubt false claims will sometimes inspire more truth. But what about when the claims are neither true nor false? Or worse, when the claims actually require more than the 140 characters in a tweet?

If I’ve understood his position correctly, Lessig isn’t saying that transparency is a bad thing as such; he’s saying that the current political system cannot support it, or change quickly enough to do so without collapsing under the weight of scandal and scrutiny. He may have a point… but I find myself wondering if that’s not just one of a couple of inevitable outcomes, the other being a sort of global totalitarian lockdown. If so, I know which I’d choose.

Personally, I think enforcing transparency is a bigger issue than transparency itself. If one powerful force (party, country, company) goes transparent, eventually the “market” will force others to follow suit – transparency builds trust, and that’s something that’s hard to compete with on any terms other than its own. We need to encourage ground-up transparency rather than having it rolled out from the top downwards; if the regulation of power is left to those who already hold it, you’re going to run into snags of one sort or another pretty fast.

On a somewhat lighter note, though, I think a new sub-genre of fiction has just been born – who will be the first to write a near-future transparent-government-collapse technothriller? Whole lotta folk living in cabins with guns who’ll buy a copy of that, I’m thinking…