Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I've had some interesting conversations about the role of transparency and privacy and I have an opinion about this. I think that we have a world where those in power have secrecy and citizen are forced to be transparent. I think that modern technology has made this increasingly so. I think that fundamentally, it should be the opposite. Public figures and institutions in power should be forced to be transparent and private citizen should have privacy and the right to speak without fear of retribution or persecution. I think this is essential for democracy and open society and we need to push for and enable this to happen.

As we work on this process of making the powerful transparent, we run into some difficulties because most institutions, even those that are for the most part well-meaning and good, are not robust against transparency because they haven't been designed to be transparent.

It reminds me of software projects that try to "go open source" after they've been written. It's often nearly impossible because the code is a mess. When people write software to be open, they typically write it in a way that is understandable to the outside and isn't embarrassing. For instance, I know some developers who use obscene words for their variables or vent their frustration about their love life in the comments in their code. They'd lose their jobs or their spouses if their code was suddenly "open".

In most powerful institutions, corners are cut and methods are used in a somewhat "ends justify the means" sort of way. There are a lot of things that are done and said behind closed doors that wouldn't survive public scrutiny, but have become common practice. In many cases, these practices aren't necessarily critically wrong, but just embarrassing or politically incorrect in some way.

I believe that Wikileaks is just the beginning of a bigger trend where it will become harder and harder to hide information and citizen counter-surveillance will become a norm rather than an exception.

I think that this will cause a lot of pain to powerful institutions - some will be overthrown or crushed. However, I think that we can build institutions that are robust against transparency if we design them that way from the beginning. It will be harder than learning to write open source software, but I believe that in the end we'll have a society that is better, stronger, more effective and fair.


When analyzing the elocutionary roles of 'public figures' versus 'private citizens' we should recall Kant's distinction between 'public' and 'private' reason. In contrast to our contemporary usage of the terms, Kant designated the 'private' as the realm of government, of officialdom, of orthodoxy, where an individual in high office or a position of power must constrain his or her own use of reason in service of the official position (toeing the line, as it were); whereas you make use of 'public reason' to express yourself as an individual and free thinker.

I believe the challenge then is to unite these two spheres of reason. We'd be much better off if those in positions of power told us what they really believe 'publicly' instead of shielding themselves behind protocol and outright dogma. 'Openness' and 'transparency' are our contemporary watchwords for precisely this.

It can be very difficult for incumbent institutions with vested interests to do so though. Intrapreneurship and change from within are hard to implement due to their intrinsic fear of loss of control. This often results in incremental steps, not for change but more to perpetuate the system, whatever they may be.

Having said that, I think it's easier for some than others, I.e. education bodies v.s. authoritarian regimes. When the mission(s) is sole, distinct and/or without chance of being in conflict, it is easier. I can't imagine a ruling political party designing more transparent processes if it also believes the transparency can give their opposition more political capital against them. I can't imagine them becoming more transparent if they think doing so may endanger their position of power, especially if they believe that they are the one and only way for the nation ;-).

perfectly agree with you. In fact i try to get more involved in a OpenData way of thinking. That could be the best thing we are doing for transparency in government, since it makes more easy to "follow the money".

Thank you for this post.

I couldn't agree more with you that the paradigm for transparency is in dire need of a shift.

Citizens ought to have the right and safe access to form public opinions based on factual information that impacts their lives, where those in power are thus encouraged to tread lightly in doing what's right for the public good.

This is the only way for democracy to evolve and flourish and for humanity to establish effective compassionate goals that improves things.

Not only is transparency important to following the money, but also following the logic in decision making. I was elected president of a local municipal board and we fought the desire to make any decisions in "private" to ensure that we made better decisions.

Money is not the only corrupting influence that can be thwarted when decision makers are confronted with the full disclosure of their motives and processes. By debating and acting in public, decision makers can build greater trust and participation from those they serve, as well as putting all who would attempt to subvert the public process for their own gain on notice not to even try. It's the best way to keep malcontents and cheats out of your house.

My problem with counter-surveillance is that there's a need to verify the information, or supposed revelation that comes out, and there's no mechanism for it. There's no way to no for sure just how accurate the Wikileaks cables are.

My quote:

"Big Brother can watch us, if we can watch Big Brother!"

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