And I want to encourage everyone to read Larry Lessig's article in the October 21, 2009 issue of The New Republic. Lessig, a parent of the Creative Commons movement, a guru on technology and creativity and change, and a member of the advisory board to The Sunlight Foundation reaches off the newstand and grabs you as you walk by with just the title of his piece, "Against Transparency." The piece stirred up some important issues - and has led to a wonderful debate (which you should check out after you read his article) online at The New Republic.
Now, Lessig's piece does an incredible job of marrying his first professional passion, technology change and creativity, to his second professional commitment, campaign finance reform. In arranging these nuptuals, Lessig points out what he sees as techno-deterministic blinders worn by transparency advocates (and this is where his respondents come back in the debate). Since my interest is in transparency, data, and philanthropy I'm going to step away from the campaign finance part of Lessig's article and extrapolate to money and data.
Several of the points that Lessig makes really matter from my point of view:
- Policy solutions or industry responses to technology that think we can go back in time are doomed to fail. As he points out, in about a decade the majority of Americans alive will not remember the "good old days" of the 20th century, before file sharing; instant, replicable digital copying, open data access, and absolutely whiz-bang data-driven info graphics as a distinguishing value of a news source.
- Technology doesn't determine our future. Our institutions and norms and practices and applications and laws determine technology and then they all mush together (my term, not his), each advance offering a platform for more change.
- Technology changes far faster than laws (see also Sascha Meinrath at New America Foundation and the Open Technology Initiative) on this point.
- This last point is important to Lessig's argument because his solution to the dangers of transparency as he sees them is not to try to fix transparency laws or technology, but to address the role of money and politics, as it is at the root of our normative assumptions between money and politics. His article is about changing how we finance politics, not how we make data available or use technology.
Here is one small example. I was in a recent conversation about disclosure requirements on private foundations. We were discussing the fact that most of what is required has to do with financial accountability, and how that drives what we know (and don't know) about philanthropy. Someone posited the idea of expanding the disclosure requirements to cover more programmatic issues or actual accomplishments. And then it occured to us - one logical effect of increasing disclosure requirements on private foundations would be to drive more donors to use advised funds, where the disclosure requirements don't (and probably wouldn't) apply. That would be a predictable end-around - and wouldn't aid the cause of learning more from philanthropy.That story covers the imagined unintended consequence of a regulatory change. What are the imagined unintended results of using technology to shed more light on what foundations do and on the data they have and could share? Given our normative association between money and influence (back to Lessig's article) will more transparency into data lead foundations or donors to take fewer risks? Or might they respond by demanding even more paperwork and making hoops even higher and smaller for applicants?
Those are a few, small "what ifs?" What really matters here is this: Can we collectively identify what the normative assumptions are about philanthropy and its roles in society, and then identify what the interaction of technology-enabled transparency and those assumptions might be? We can't go back to a pre-techno-transparent age. And we'd be fools to expect a solely positive, linear interaction between the new visibility that it provides and our existing philanthropic institutions and behaviors. So instead, if we assume "backlash" and unintended consequences, perhaps we can surface our assumptions about roles of public and private resources, money, power, public, private, leadership, and social change in such a way that we really do change the game.
I'd welcome your thoughts on Lessig's article and the conversation that it sparked over at The New Republic. Transparency is here to stay - how do we make sure it yields the good we want from it?