Contextual clothing for naked transparency

The other day I listened to a Spark (CBC Radio) interview with Larry Lessig about his New Republic essay Against Transparency, which begins:

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.

The essay was published in October 2009. In this interview from November, Prof. Lessig reflected on the reactions that it provoked. Although the delicious and bitly feedback now suggests that most people understood the essay to be a thoughtfully nuanced critique, there were evidently some early responders who read it as a retreat from openness and an assault on the Internet.

I’m glad I missed the essay when it first appeared. Reading it along with a cloud of feedback from readers and from the author amplifies one of the key points: We don’t really want naked transparency, we want transparency clothed in context.

The Net can be an engine for context assembly, a wonderful phrase I picked up years ago from Jack Ozzie and echoed in several essays. But it can also be a context destroyer.

In the interview, Lessig notes one example of context destruction. The article, which most people will read online, spans eleven pages, each of which wraps its nugget of “content” in layers of distraction. Some early negative comments, Lessig says, came from people who had clearly not read to the end.

Our increasingly compressed and fragmented attention can also be a context destroyer:

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?

This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.

Transparency is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Recently my town’s crime data and council meetings have appeared online. But this remarkable transparency does not alone enable the sort of collaborative sense-making that we all rightly envision.

In the case of crime data, we require a context that includes historical trends, regional and national comparisons, guidance from government about how its local taxonomy relates to regional and national taxonomies, and reporting by newspapers and citizens.

In the case of city council meetings, we require a context that includes relevant state law and local code, and reporting by stakeholders, by newspapers, and by affected citizens.

To enable context assembly, we’ll need to organize the numeric and narrative data produced by the “naked transparency” movement in ways friendly to linking, aggregation, and discovery.

But these principles will need to be adopted more broadly than by governments alone. Everyone needs to understand the principles of linking, aggregation, and discovery, so that everyone can help create the context we crave.