Sunday, May 27, 2012

Open Government and Private Interests

Tom Slee is an interesting writer (who occasionally comments here), who has published a good book on the limitations of markets and seems to generally fall into the "cyberskeptic" category. He recently published a couple of blog posts critiquing the Open Government movement (or "movement", since one of his complaints is that it is not actually a coherent political movement). I thought these were interesting but misguided, and felt like trying to tease out some details from my initial reaction.


First, why is this important? Well, Open Government is merely one of the many technosocial movements that seems to have spun out of the O'Reilly publishing empire and is deeply enmeshed with it. "Makers" is another, "Big Data" is another, "Web 2.0" was one a few years back but now seems to have been mothballed. All of these are bigger than O'Reilly of course, but he's played a central role in crystallizing these tendencies, generating slogans for them, and (I presume) making a boatload of money off of them.

Whenever I contemplate these I have a split reaction. On the one hand, they are all pretty damn good directions to move in, very much in tune with my own values and thoughts. He's mastered the art of slapping useful labels onto the not-quite-yet-born aspects of the tech world, labels that are just vague and suggestive enough to launch a movement. Yet there's this element of silicon valley hype cycle to them that turns me off as well. Mostly I try to ignore that latter bit, make my peace with it.


But aside from the aesthetics, there is often a huge element of economic centralization that is also happening with these very distributed movements, and that is something that deserves some closer examination. The way O'Reilly makes money off of amateur enthusiast "makers" is a relatively inoffensive example; the way Facebook makes billions off of everybody's private social lives is something more serious. (see "digital sharecropping").


I imagine Slee has somewhat similar feelings, but in his case he's turned this into an ideological conflict between "neoliberalism" and something else (progressivism, I guess). The market side of these movements is more of a turn-off for him than for me, and it may seem particularly abrasive in the case of Open Government, where it tends to support privatized delivery of what are now public services. I don't like the use of "neoliberalism" as a curse word, and am not sure it's even a very coherent ideology. Let's use the more straightforward "market-based mechanisms". These have their place; I don't think progressives should define themselves by a reflexive opposition to the market or market-based solutions to problems.


Here's Slee's most salient complaint against Open Gov:

It's co-opting the language of progressive change in pursuit of a small-government-focused subsidy for industry.
This seems kind of twisted towards the negative, although every element of it has some truth. It is using the language of progressivism, it does enable new ways for private interests to profit from government data, but I just can't see that as an automatic bad thing. The question is whether all that private interest is being harnessed towards the public good or is merely exploiting it, and it is too soon to tell which of those will prevail.


Anyway – one of the reason Open Government seems like a good idea is that everybody knows that Gov 1.0 is completely broken and desperately needs reinvention. Letting Silicon Valley get its hands on it doesn't seem like such a bad option, even if that means a gold rush of private interests trying to profit from the newly opened data landscape. But it would be better if these things were thought through, that actual politics was brought into the discussion, that we don't pretend (this is a common computer delusion that I probably share) that all we have to do is establish digital connections between everything together and peace, harmony, and intelligence will reign.


The real world involves interests and conflict. "Government as a platform" ignores the fact that platforms are contentious political creatures themselves. Even a purely technical platform, say, Java, is not merely technical, different corporate interests are served by its adoption, what rules it follows, etc. So yeah, government is a platform, that's really an excellent way of looking at it, as long as we realize that platforms have politics even when they aren't directly a part of state power.


I remain pretty excited by Open Government, I think it points to a whole slew of services and solutions that haven't been invented yet, and I don't mind all that much if some people are trying to make money off of it. That's how America works, it seems better to accept it than fight it.


[This is not directly relevant but presents a somewhat parallel dilemma; another way in which state power, the counterculture, and technology are intersecting in ways that are intriguing, powerful and somewhat scary.]




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