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November 04, 2009


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Christine Egger

Thanks for drawing attention to this conversation and what we've been hearing so far, Phil. (Thx to Gerry, too, for sharing the link.)

Agreed, an "electorate with ADD informed often by tabloid soundbites, jumping to wrong conclusions, and demanding more factoids, that may not be so so good."

Yes, please, let's think about which spaces should be closed. The conversation shouldn't be simply about opening. As technologies make that more easily available, an option for individuals and organizations to consider alike, we can now have a more level conversation about the where and when of it all.

I encourage openness because closed is the default, the rarely questioned status quo. Because we haven't even begun to appreciate just how much positive change can be generated by sharing so much more than we already do.

Much to be appreciated by the conversation about what that openness will involve and require. It'll require more critical attention to what we're able to see, I imagine. Maybe we'll become less ADD, less soundbite-satisfied, more thoughtful, if we're given more to think about and focus on?

Phil Cubeta

Professionally, right now the hottest question I ask of fundraisers, and of women, is "Do you have access to the planning table where the big bucks are planned?" Few fundraisers do. Even today many women say they do not, that their money is handled by someone else, that if they are physically present their voice is not heard or heeded. Access, and how to gain access, the rules, the membrane, is what I think about all the time. The sociology around who has access to what sensitive information is very intense, in any given micro-niche. One way to ask is, "Why are you not more transparent?" Another way to ask is, "What would I have to do to be qualified to get access to that information, or in-group?" Credentialization plays into this in my little micro-niche. By obtaining a credential, the newbie gains access to a planning context from which he or she would likely otherwise be excluded. Giving just anyone access to confidential financial information is obviously a bad a idea, likewise medical records, criminal records, phone records. Giving an employee access to her personnel file? OK. How about access to her co-workers? Her boss? See? This is deep stuff, who sees what, who supervises what, who watches the watchers?

Access to a funders report on why charity xyz was not funded a second year? The funder's sense that the charity was ill run and possibly corrupt? Does that suspicion documented in the file come under "transparency"? Can the charity sue for defamation?

Lessig says that transparency will drive secrecy. I think he is right. "No notes of this meeting."


Of course the scrutiny of this sort of thing even if groundless is a pain no one should have to endure. The idea of being able to keep closed records is that in principle they could be reviewed by someone with standing to do so. The question of standing can be manipulated as well, so the danger remains.

It is always "safer" to keep no records, but I think there is an important principle to be highlighted here. You should operate as if everything you do is transparently available, not to anyone as that may include those who wish to do you harm, but to anyone "in the community". This is maybe the outermost circle of engagement, or it could be narrowed contextually.

Jon Husband

Another step along the path to (eventual) forms of "wirearchy" ?


It's hard to think about transparency because that word stands in for a bunch of different stuff - politically, philosophically, even theologically.

What's being set up is a) transparency for data; b) publicity for individuals; and c) monitized distribution channels of ceaseless (re)circulation all the content thus freed.

The impulse behind the "transparency movement" is what? A radical Talibanic aversion to representation(s)? A do-gooder striving for better government? An entrepreneurial recognition of the value of creating circulation channels for vast new data stores?

Do I have the right to know the names and addresses of people receiving public assistance in my community? The medical expenses of medicaid patients?

What about the labor union that recently successfully used the courts to force its members to put *their own* websites behind password protected firewalls? Is it fighting a losing battle there, or is that an example of the new secrecy?

Do we want a world where the "safest" thing to do is pretend the big other is always there? Where the sense of the "community" being always present is used to conceal the fact that it doesn't exist? For what purpose is this fiction being maintained?

Phil Cubeta

Raven, I rue the day I became authentic, transparent,and sincere. The Big Other is always with me now in the form of readers, or the fear of readers, who expect me to maintain the an air of respectability lest I tend to call established arrangements into disrepute. The Panopticon is not an image of Freedom. Even if the Guard who sees every prisoner at all times is also seen by each prioner, it would not be an image of freedom. Having zones of privacy, keeps our inner life alive. Zones of intimacy, and trust, and openness far from prying eyes and ears is essential to a) collusive elites and b) revolutionary vanguards. Transparency could include papers or microchips we all carry with us to make sure we are who we say we are and that all relevant data about us can be accessed by those with a need to know. How we define need to know or who defines it, is pretty important. The default now seems to be that in principle everyone needs to know everything, with certain exceptions.


Clearly undifferntiated openness is a profoundly bad idea. The principles of transparency are arise in asymmetric relations of information and power.

The real question is what constitutes appropriate openness? What are the contextual attributes that lean in one direction or another?

I think you will often find that the needs for transparency and security don't often actually come in conflict. Transparency rarely requires personal information, and large financial transactions need wide scrutiny. If you map out all the contexts and scenarios maybe there are some tricky areas, but if the rules are all clear up front and individual privacy protected where do you see the remaining problem areas?

It isn't really that hard to see what is right. If the government/corps. are not oppressive, then maybe only the guilty need fear disclosure. Of course the government often is abetting the guilty parties if not actually the perpetrator, so we ask for openness and disclosure.

Even if you believe in a positive role for government, you have to propose systems that are defensible against corruption. Transparency is one of the tools, but probably more attacking the symptoms over problems.

raven tintype

Reading the lessig article and glancing through all the followups, the problem is that in order to think about this and remain sane they have to think about transparency purely as an organizational challenge or a political challenge in order to remain coherent coherent. Then I feel silly for having to think about the little bit I remember of Harold Bloom's (forgive me) thesis about gnosticism in The American Religion and how that seems a much better way of approaching the Transparency Movement (at least as someone who is not a celebrity voice in public policy debates).

Or how it could be understood as an ontological shift (does wirearchy veer far enough away from managerial concerns to touch on that?).

Or having spent time among the shock troops of transparency, the open source coders who while building the pipes to feed the data beast willingly participate in their own conversion into data stars while simultaneously submitting to discipline by cheating employers wielding the cudgel of "community" as they pick their pockets?

Or Hamilton vs. Jefferson, or Marx. Or the idea that some people want to lose their signs but keep their significations - i.e., post-politics.


An ontological shift? Yes, definitely!

Problem is, organizationally and politically the shift looks like suicide. Personally we might speak of "ego death" in a transformational process, and not without reason. Can an institution choose to dissolve itself? Would it?

Our institutions are all zombies already. Who is in control? The beast itself is in control, which is to say, no one at home.

Jon Husband

Having zones of privacy, keeps our inner life alive. Zones of intimacy, and trust, and openness far from prying eyes and ears is essential to a) collusive elites and b) revolutionary vanguards. Transparency could include papers or microchips we all carry with us to make sure we are who we say we are and that all relevant data about us can be accessed by those with a need to know. How we define need to know or who defines it, is pretty important

It's not pretty important .. it is critical, essential, fundamental .. and not enough people want to talk about it, 'cuz all this openness and transparency is a shiny new thing.

I'm as guilty of that as the next person, though I think it's fair to say I think about and am aware of the less-than-desirable aspects of full-on, all-the time openness and transparency. I like to think I am open and transparent but cautious and judicious, and try to use whatever good judgment I possess.

That there is such interest in so many places and ways about openness and transparency, well-informed or not, speaks volumes, I think, to what has been on offer before.

Phil Cubeta

We have different roles, each a subset of what and who we are. When these roles collide it makes those who know us in one role uncomfortable. There is in common parlance such a thing as "too much information." I just do not need or want to know prurient facts about my colleagues, or how they vote, or how they pray, or how they envisage the End Times. When you have to be the same self in all contexts, that means you have to be guarded in all contexts. You end up with a public persona that is vapid and a private one that is equally so. "He who is entirely open has nothing to hide because there is so little there."

Raven Tintype

It doesn't bother me that the 300-year-old deposition of my great-x5-grandfather and the witnesses to his killing of another man is universally available online at no cost, although I can imagine it might if I still lived among the decedent's descendants, or in a culture where one is held responsible for the actions of distant ancestors. But this is a good example of how digitalization is affecting even the oldest and most obscure public records.

It does bother me that anyone with an internet connection in Kazakhstan can order a copy of the court records of my divorce in Massachusetts. Apparently, "public" now means "universal."

Phil Cubeta

Those who deplore decisions made from above by elected representatives, or by insiders, or experts often overestimate their own capacity to make reasoned choices. Democracy has become mostly a charade in part because puppet shows are what the public most enjoys. That and scandal. Why don't we all just read the Obama Health Care Bill, master it, and then vote online? Plebescites give us some of the most ill considered laws.

Raven Tintype

Here's what bloom said about gnosticism and information science:

As Americans, we are obsessed with information, and we regard religion as the most vital aspect of information.

I reflect that Gnosticism was ( and is ) a kind of information theory.

Matter and energy are rejected, or at least placed under the sign of negation.

Information becomes the emblem of salvation; the false Creation-Fall concerned matter and energy, but the Pleroma, or Fullness, the original Abyss, is all information.

Americans always have had a tendency to quest for the unfindable primitive Christian Church.

What they actually seek to restore is not the church of the first Christians, but the primal Abyss, named by the ancient Gnostics as both our foremother and forefather."

Now, leaving aside the validity of this as either religious criticism or information theory, it does make an interesting jumping off point for attempting to understand the "Transparency Movement," calls for direct democracy, or even criticism of "media bias" (the real objection is not to "bias" but to mediation itself).

Jon Husband

Those who deplore decisions made from above by elected representatives, or by insiders, or experts often overestimate their own capacity to make reasoned choices


Democracy has become mostly a charade in part because puppet shows are what the public most enjoys. That and scandal.

Leaving aside the peoples' appetites, how did this happen, in the land that reveres democracy and professes to manifest the best available examples ?

Why don't we all just read the Obama Health Care Bill, master it, and then vote online?

Only if widespread public education (not vocational socialization) is up to the challenge, and even then probably not a great idea.

We can't handle constant transparency and openness, really .. but it keeps marketers and ill-mannered people busy and believing.

But I always do not see this challenge as an either / or issue. We are all going to learn, at significant price, what we can handle and what we can't. But the alternative, which is / was just to continue with secretive highers-up controlling the narratives and the stuff og which the narratives are made, is less attractive (to me) than defaulting to minimal transparency because the rabble is undisciplined.

Boundaries and general guidelines will (and in some cases already have) appear that are not perfect, but that will, I think, be good enough to let us manage ourselves and the activities in which we become involved. It will take time, learning and practice.

Phil Cubeta

Not that we can know or read or understand it, but it is good to know that in principle we too have access to the juicy stuff, whatever it might be.


The benefits of open source are for everyone, not just those who can read the code. Same thing with transparency in the public sphere. We don't all have to become data experts for the data to be mined. We (meaning the general public) can even help the same way NASA has used the general public to analyze galaxies into classes or Mars images. The results are averaged from non-experts following simple rules and easily do better than trained grad-students.

As Jon say, boundaries and general guidelines about how and where to draw lines of privacy can go a long way. The dial needs to be pushed much further towards transparency.


I guess I am always struck by ego when it makes its presence felt. Those who have the power to shut the door do it, and come up with reasons why. When geeks find a way to open closed doors they do it and find reasons why. In the end, it is about power and who has it. Having the power to put divorce papers online, why not, go for it. Geeks rule. Transparency will cure all. "We don't need no stinkin' permissions." One of Lessig's points is that having so much out in the open will drive important people and important conversations into deeper protocols of secrecy. Transparency will spark a market for encyrption, safe space, private clubs, codes of silence, shredders, and protocols of not taking notes in meetings - as in the Bush administration. Leave no paper trail. The walls have ears. Remember what you say may be deposable. Transparency leads to opacity.

Phil Cubeta

I guess I am asking who decides when transparency applies? Who makes what calls? Who can opt out? Who opts in? Some will be governed by law (as with medical and financial privacy laws). Some will be governed by manners and mores. The rest seems like a cat and mouse struggle of who can hide what from whom and who can find what.

Jon Husband

"Who decides" will always be an interesting and difficult question, until the time (which may be never) that societies and organizations can develop consensus-making processes and mechanisms that result in effective actionable consensus derived from information and activities that are visible and understandable by all or a large majority of constituents.

Unlikely to be very useful at macro levels in societies like the USA where there are at least two camps who perceive and live in different realities / opposing universes. Being a society based on the "rule of law" was a decent way to go about it for a number of decades, but it seems clear that has gone by the wayside now and is primarily for show.

Jon Husband

The open.data.gov initiatives in the US, Canada and some countries in Europe seem promising, but will no doubt kick over any number of hornets' nests.

Raven Tintype



Thanks Raven, those are interesting "technical" issues about transparency.

I think we want to get at something deeper here. When privacy is used to cover up great crimes, whether those crimes are public in the form of government/official corruption or private as in "economic hit men" form doesn't matter. Really those are different heads of the same monster.

Just watching Democracy Now from yesterday. John Perkins, the "former economic hitman" author was on, new book is "Hoodwinked". Seems very much connected to the segment before that asserts that the economic system has the "poor" countries supporting the "rich". That system is not fair, it is enforced with violence as Perkins know from his past and writes about.

The legal frameworks we have about free speech and rights to privacy are sufficient if they are not compromised. Big if. We can debate the small stuff, whether the privacy rights of a former convict trump the right to talk about facts that are known publicly, but we can't have our systems and institutions continually undermined by corruption.


They http://overcriminalized.com/ would be against more transparency.

Raven Tintype

Gerry, I think a lot of the unexamined presuppositions in your assertions about how technical culture, networks and open source are somehow inherently producers/protectors of democracy are addressed most trenchantly here:


Dean's take on the publicity/secrecy nexus is a lot more developed than Lessig's (why, it's the basis of her book!), and her basic assertion is that technoculture does not enhance democracy (in fact, it obscures democracy's impossibility by promoting the fantasy of social unity), but rather produces a state of affairs she designates as "communicative capitalism."


Communicative Capitalism. Funny.

Jon Husband


Thx for pointer to Publicity's Secret ... looks like an interesting and strong premise.

Raven Tintype

Yeah. It's a good one. In counterpoint to Lessig and much of the discussion here, it's not at all about how to determine what should be made public; rather, it examines how the idea of a "public" requires the "secret" as a constitutive force. This puts calls for transparency in an ironic light, since transparency proponents like to paint themselves as radical or disruptive or progressive, but in actuality they are caught up in the same-old dynamic of publicity that merely reinforces the current political impasse....

Phil Cubeta

RT, so under the analysis in the book, what lies beyond the political impasse of blocked democracy, or phantasmal democracy, a real democracy or something consciously else?

Raven Tintype

Jeez. You woulda had to ask that!

"Re-imagining democracy under conditions of global technoculture is a project that is just beginning... One vision, that of communicative capitalism, should not be allowed to provide the matrix through which this re-imagining occurs. For the sake of democracy, it is time to abandon the public." (last paragraph, c. 2002)

Phil Cubeta

I am sorry to say I was afraid it would end with deconstruction. An irony or dialectical play that leaves everything unchanged as a practical matter.... That was her diagnosis, but it also seems the disease she too has caught. With Zizek in the background, I wondered if it might land on some more revolutionary note. The "project of reimagining democracy that is just beginning" as the book ends sounds like permanent employment for intellectuals. Is the book implicitly at war with Habermas? Too bourgeois liberal and mystified from a Marxist perspective?


You'll have to be a lot more specific about the unexamined assumptions. I don't claim to have no blindspots, but I am no stranger to grounded argument either.

Not sure where you are getting this: "assertions about how technical culture, networks and open source are somehow inherently producers/protectors of democracy". I don't see anything as inherent in all of this. Protecting democracy will take all of us, and a little luck too.

raven tintype

It's explicitly at war with Habermas.

I don't really know what deconstruction is, so I don't understand what it means that you were afraid it would end that way.

Dean is a a Zizek scholar, but she has political differences with him, which if i was less intoxicated, i would attempt to delineate, but mostly revolve around, IIRC, political efficacy.


Speaking of transparency,Rep. leader of Congressional Intelligence committee is all over that Rachel may be a bit sarcastic, but she has a point, actually a lot of them, good ones.

Phil Cubeta

Back in the early days of blogging, we all talked about how it was the new public square, where citizens could drop their professional roles, meet as citizens, and hash things out for themselves. The first protoblogging software I used was Trellix, back in the dark ages. It was created by Dan Bricklin who likened self published websites to Ben Franklin's printing press. It seemed like a peaceful revolution was in the making as hyperlinks began to subvert hiearchy. Now, the situation is not so clear. Transparency has proven a real but missed blessing. The dialogs in the public square are often within walled, branded, gardens whose owners are very wealthy, and often libertarian/reactionary. Blogs sport advertisements. Dialog is often of twitter length, more social than the reasoning that Habermas associated with the public square. Politicians and publicists have learned to mobilize constituencies and customers, not surprisingly. So, I try to locate the political energy for real change. Maybe the web changes everything, but not yet. Still seems pretty much business as usual to me, with new media. Maybe Zizek inspired critique of the whole notion of the public square, of liberalism, of democracy itself provides hope. But I am in sales. I always want to see the last slide in the slide deck before I form an opinon of the set up. When secrecy, celebrity, public, private - when those words are set to vibrating and disintegrating as categories, I just want to know what will replace them? With Zizek, as little as I have dipped into him, that question of what he would now propose, by way of actual existing structures for governance, and ordering our society, seems unanswered. There is plenty of Hegel, Marx, Lacan, much verbal brilliance, and much telling demolition of unconsidered pieties, but how are we supposed to live? What is our next step, or direction, or guiding ideal? Union organizing? Protest? Volunteering? Nonprofit engagement? Transition towns? Art? Satire? What is the direction? To entertain? To philosophize in search of truth? (You can hear Zizek chortling at that one, but what is he doing, in the name of what, for what purpose?) I have not delved deep enough into this deep running stream to know if there is an answer in his writings to "the end in view?" and how to there. Lenin is mentioned favorably as a model here and there.

Jon Husband

One vision, that of communicative capitalism, should not be allowed to provide the matrix through which this re-imagining occurs. For the sake of democracy, it is time to abandon the public."

Time to bring up the book "Rebel Sell - why the culture can't be jammed" again ?

The Rebel Sell is a critique of the countercultural ideology that has dominated the political agenda of the West since the 1960s. Guaranteed to incense both the followers of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, as well as their right-wing counterparts, The Rebel Sell argues that both sides implicitly buy into the "myth of counterculture": the idea that there is a “System” (also known as “the Man” or “the Culture”) that requires mass conformity in order to function properly.

As Heath and Potter show, far from undermining the system or “jamming” the culture, .

Jon Husband

Drat !

As Heath and Potter show, far from undermining the system or “jamming” the culture, countercultural rebellion has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumer capitalism for the past 40 years.

Phil Cubeta

Good points, Jon. In that same vein, "Commodify your Dissent." ClueTrain was Rebel Sell in spirit? It was an advertising and marketing book, really. It was very difficult engaging its authors in a discussion of public good, the public interest, nonprofits, or even good government. They were focused mostly on using liberatory language to advance marketing.

Phil Cubeta

Culture Jam too is so commericial. It may rip off ad style and turn it to semi-subversive purpose, but the style, the rhetoric, the slickness is all from the adversting world attacked. They are like the atheist who can't stop talking about God, or the reformed alcoholic consumed by discussing the vice of drinking. An alternative platform, one formed in a world not dominated by capitalism and the markets -for that some turn to Zizek, as above in this thread. And he turns to Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan and Lenin. Very hard to graft those dialetical "world as will and idea" European shoots into the materialist, empiricist, American-English liberal bourgois tradition. Questions like, "Now what?" come to mind. Fascinating how much energy this transparency conversation has elicited. It is as if many now fill stymied and in a quandry over issues that a few years ago seemed to be settled - "the internet changes everything," ok, what is next?


Rebellion as commodity.

The new paradigm cannot be anticipated or brought on by force of will or design. You can't overthrow the system. The system evolves by its own logic. Certainly many, likely most are facile and hindsighted. Pointing out the wave that is already washing over us, but not really that helpful in learning to surf.

Things are changing though. Not all for the better of course. The dinosaurs may be dying, but they still rule the earth. I look at the currency systems we are building as survival systems. When the too big too fail financial system fails we will need something to fill critical roles in commerce, and if we are ready with new systems that fix a variety of systemic problems at the same time we might just get a financial system for a diverse and sustainable world economy.

It is still unbelievable to me that the world is so dominated today by market fundamentalism. As if some mysterious "magic of the market" could make such a desired outcome happen. Not that markets are not important tools in some contexts, but it isn't hard to demonstrate many more contexts where markets fails and other solutions are called for.

Raven Tintype

I'm sorry, is this meant to suggest that Jodi Dean or Slavoj Zizek "buy into the myth of the counterculture?"

I guess you couldn't call that a misreading, when they've been unread. It would be something else.

Phil Cubeta

I would not have suggested that naivete of Zizek, nor of Dean, having just read the first 2-30 pages. I take them as finding the whole game of accepting or rebelling as being empty of real significance. I think Jon was saying that too. Still you get down to the question. "There is no outside of wealth bondage, or is there?" Maybe Zizek would say, "Yes, but we can only glimpse it on the horizon, approaching us under the guise of the monstrous." Living inside a system and trying to articulate its "beyond" is pretty difficult. Maybe all we can do it pry at its stress cracks, hoping that it will open like an eggshell broken by the bird pecking within.

raven tintype

Ah, well it's only been 20 years since the unfortunate fall of the Berlin Wall, and there's still a lot of rethinking going on. All the real action is in the non-anglophile world.

Do you really think it's valid to conflate deconstruction with ideology critique? Deconstruction has a different provenance and a narrower application. Any time someone points out a contradiction underlying some concept or institution, they get labeled "deconstructionist?" Even right-wing bloggers like to label their harebrained political criticisms as deconstructions these days.

You also seem to be omitting that Habermas was a European. Were his ideas somehow Anglo or is "European" another label like "deconstructionist" used to signify a disagreement.


Fair to say the "magic of the market" and the credibility of the public sector are symmetrical doubles? The market brags about innovation and efficiency while assuming the robust ethics we tend to associate with upright nonprofit efforts; the public critics of business as usual assume economic energy filled with rabid animal spirits which require the yolk of sober, alert, quick-witted and highly informed and efficient prudential governance. One cannot exist without the other, yet each tends to hold an icepick to the other's throat.


Well said, tm. Maybe call it the assumption of infaliblity, the opposite of "radical falibility" that Soros talks about.

There is a middle way. Markets without a framework that deals with market failures is an invitation to predation. That's why legal frameworks were created in the first place, to deal with outright violence and predation that will necessarily dominate a domain unregulated by any egalitarian social norms.

So we do need governance and stewardship, but these have their own failures. First corruption, which is the issue that drives the call for appropriate transparency in public function. Second and probably more important is that controls don't really work. Corruption is actually an effect of compromised control systems. Money from the market is pollution in the public sphere, and makes public stewardship impossible.

Control also fails on another level. In attempting to contain "economic energy filled with rabid animal spirits" we only have one toolset, regulation by bureaucracy which is a less complex system (bureaucracy) trying to control and more complex system (an adapting economy and its markets). If it isn't captured and rendered inert by industry corruption, it is inept or systemically incapable of performing the role of stable governance systems for adaptive economic markets.

Control systems need to be integral to the markets themselves. If there is global risk, there needs to be a space in which that can be regulated. When "private" parties have trillions in many currencies and instruments, and the parties to these contracts can't even know the necessary details, that constitutes risk. That is the core of all recent market instability. Unless the juice keeps flowing, all of the global financial tower is at risk. It can't keep flowing forever.

The next "crisis" needs to call the bluff of the financial system. We are not hostages to the paper becoming worthless, we can now create new paper that isn't flawed from the get-go. That system will have to save itself or fall under its own weight.

Note that this is a fundamentally conservative position in the sense of conservatives who claim the label "classic liberal", except that they don't understand systems. Enterprises that can't cut it need to fail. "Moral hazard" and all that.

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