[FoRK] Lessig, Anissimov, "transparency fundamentalism", and flip-flopping

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Fri Oct 16 05:31:35 PDT 2009

Michael takes Lawrence to task over his recent transparency back- 
peddling article in The New Republic.  Original Lessig article:


Anissimov's critique:



So...  I'm really torn about this.  On the one hand, the dangers of  
complete transparency seem, and have always seemed, obvious to me ---  
going back to sparring on the issue with Gordon on this list some  
decade+ ago, after Brin came out guns blazing with his book.  On the  
other hand, the dangers of incomplete transparency and asymmetric  
(with respect to e.g. governors vs. the governed) seem even more  
patently obvious 8 years later.  "Who watches the watchers?" ...and  
all that.

Similar situations obtain in the financial markets as well.  Re: Jim  
and Lucas' exchange yesterday, informational symmetry can provide for  
more efficient pricing, cf. commodities and particularly oil.  On the  
other hand, there is perhaps a theoretical limit to how transparent  
and symmetrical a deal can be in the presence of complex financial  
instruments (and don't think they won't get more complex, intelligent,  
and inscrutable --- Stross's AI-like financial instruments are  
practical possibility, one could even argue that they exist implicitly  
today in the activities and interactions of certain financial  
entities, they are merely not fully securitized or recognized as  
financial actors / agents themselves --- yet.)  Cf. the paper I posted  
yesterday for an initial exploration into some of the limits  
involved.  And that's with respect to overt dealings;  regulation,  
exchange-listing, the impact of deal channels on valid pricing, and so  
on are all different but crucial aspects of the same problem (set /  

And on the other-other hand, with respect to commodities, in many  
cases there is inherent uncertainty;  the destination for eventual  
physical delivery of e.g. the subject of an oil futures contract,  
should such delivery become necessary, may not be known and *may be  
impossible to predict* at the time the contract is initially dealt.   
Whole companies make their business "arbing" geography and time in  
this manner, "storing" oil in mobile storage mechanisms (oil tankers)  
and simply shipping it where it needs to go, potentially diverting  
course when the price landscape / gradient shifts.  This doesn't  
reflect a lack of transparency, it reflects a fundamental limit on  
information and predictability.  (Though improvements in the latter,  
potentially dramatic, are IMHO possible.)

Back to transparency per se...  Anissimov says:

"Transparency and openness have become a cult. Corporate marketing  
campaigns pander to this cult relentlessly. It is the ultimate ego  
trip. The thinking goes like this: everything is better when the  
common person, namely me, can stick my fingers in every pie and  
contribute to every decision-making process. This way of thinking is  
profoundly wrong. It assumes that everyone is equally good at  
everything. There is a reason we have experts and specialists. Though  
in some domains, experts are just as good as anyone (such as clinical  
psychology), in many domains, expert knowledge and skills matter...   
The core of Lessig’s fanbase is a culture of nerds who think that  
everything is better when they personally get to control part of it."

And he's absolutely right --- he even verges on one of the key ideas  
(i.e., not everybody should have a say in everything impacting  
everyone else) lurking at the heart of my constant complaints about  
democratic processes.  However, without complete (potential)  
transparency in dealings, particularly those with the coercive might  
of governmental authority, what you get de facto is the kind of  
technocratic / oligarchic control-by-elites that we have seen in  
different forms both with the former GOP trifecta and now with the Dem  
trifecta...  and those inevitably devolve to abuse, manipulation,  
deception, secrecy, coercion, suboptimal social satisfaction, and so on.

Not that I abhor a technocracy in principle, actually.  I just don't  
think (any group of) human beings have (ever) demonstrated enough  
competence and integrity to earn my trust in their ability to govern  
as technocratic elites. ;-)  (Or as fully-empowered, populist /  
"democratic" mobs, for that matter.)


There's quite a long history of game-theoretical analysis of iterated  
games with asymmetric and incomplete information.  What's missing is a  
theory of evolving meta-games in which those first-order games are  
themselves initially defined, iteratively refined, and potentially- 
erroneously implemented.  This kind of higher-order meta-gaming theory  
would provide a better practical theory of government / governance,  
and could help us answer and understand how best to optimize the  
search over social landscapes and social choice algorithms with  
respect to these and other issues.  While there's some dabbling in  
this and related areas (mutable-rules games, games with concealed  
rules, and so on;  cf. Nomic and Suber's The Paradox of Self- 
Amendment) --- this field is woefully under-studied relative to first- 
order games and their static but iterated extrapolations.  And that's  
quite alarming given that *it's how we run the world.*



More information about the FoRK mailing list