Instead of criticizing government actions on moral grounds, digital-transparency organizations have focused on value-neutral process: a bipartisan spectator sport involving the mannered drama of leaked data and online spreadsheets. Hewing to the ideal of transparency requires no greater engagement with government secrecy than polishing the display window, and hoping that, in time, agencies will shuffle the right bit of information into the forefront.
If “transparency is the new objectivity,” as Sifry insists, then we’ve discarded politics for procedure. If we think the necessary debates will just automatically follow from arbitrary data releases, we’ll never initiate the critical investigations that could actually prompt relevant disclosures or develop a focus to make use of the dumped info before more piles on top of us.
Belief in the inherent progressivism of the Internet and digital activism obscures the way transparency actually exaggerates those asymmetries of power that Sifry so earnestly believes will be reversed. Put another way, technology rarely helps unearth government secrets, but it can unearth ours for government. Sifry quotes Julian Assange, circa 2011, arguing that “transparency should be proportional to the power that one has.” But web technologies have rendered the defenseless citizen far more transparent than any well-fortified government agency or corporation. Institutions use their existing power to better exploit the affordances of new technologies; they don’t level the playing field, let alone turn the tables.
This article is a harsh and, in my opinion, necessary corrective to the kind of naively net-positive thinking I heard from Daniel Drache (author of Defiant Publics: The Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen) the other night. He was a charming and engaging speaker, but I think he was mainly wrong.