Transparency And The Despotism Of Data

The brilliant PEG points my eye toward this observation on the limits of transparency in an era of big government:

People who are hip to the we-gov (as opposed to e-gov) concept are beginning to see that in order to bring netizens in as partners in governance, they need to be data literate, and need to be empowered with an understanding of what data actually means. Otherwise data — data that is useless to anyone except an intellectual elite — is largely just another tool for public relations, or a way to lower costs.

I’ve got nothing against popular numeracy, though I do groan each time a pundit or a president plumps for ‘more science and math education’ as a twenty-first century cure-all. Here I see a similar problem. Should we really seek public data literacy because our government is impenetrable and unintelligible unless we can crunch numbers? Or is this a case of the enormous tail wagging, and whipping, the dog?

A progressive fatalist — here is a moniker that should enter the lexicon — might argue that this sort of logic reflects simply the latest and greatest definition of citizenship. Just as basic literacy and public awareness once set the bar for responsible citizenship (never mind those nasty poll tests), now, today, anyone who wants to participate properly in politics needs to brush up on their quant skills. But this elegant line of reasoning conveniently elides what any friend of political liberty will recognize as the central problem: a government that concentrates information as irresistibly as it concentrates power.

Even setting aside the libertarian worry that a national-security state run wild will gobble up all our private information in permanent endless databases, Americans should pause before learning to love government data. The ability to digest numerical information, though important, still puts the would-be citizen in a default position of passive consumption. And the switch from discourse-driven citizenship to data processing puts us all on a conceptual footing that favors precisely what any public conversation about the means and ends of our BIG government should emphasize — the indefinite expansion, entrenchment, and convolution of bureaucratic complexity. As David Brooks warns today, super-human complexity breeds all-too-human complacency, caprice, and corruption — the very things that an active, education citizenry is able, and even designed, to prevent.