I’m using a story from Canadian author Alice Munro as an analogy for open data. I spend the first few paragraphs discussing it — then, on to open data.
In Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” Johanna Perry, a homely housekeeper, lands the delectable but down-and-out Ken Boudreau:
He had figured out by now who this woman was. She had said she came to bring him his furniture, though he hadn’t asked her or anybody to do that – hadn’t asked for the furniture at all, just the money. He should know her name, but he couldn’t remember it. That was why he opened her purse, which was on the floor of the hall beside her suitcase. There was a name tag sewn into the lining.
Johanna Perry. And the address…on Exhibition Road.
Some other things. A cloth bag with a few bills in it. Twenty-seven dollars. Another bag with change, which he didn’t bother to count. A bright blue bankbook. He opened it up automatically, without expectations of anything unusual.
A couple of weeks ago Johanna had been able to transfer the whole of her inheritance from Mrs. Willets into her bank account…The sum was not dazzling, but it was impressive. It gave her substance. In Ken Boudreau’s mind, it added a sleek upholstery to the name Johanna Perry.
“Hateship, Friendship” is a variation on the Cinderella story. The persecuted heroine is Johanna and she is set up for humiliation by two young girls, one of whom is under her care. They intercept a heart-breaking letter she has written to her putative lover, Ken, telling him about her harrowing life. The girls rightly interpret it as a play for his emotions and, like evil stepsisters, decide to trick her. They concoct a series of love letters, ostensibly from Ken, and these eventually prompt Johanna to leave Ontario and to find him in Gydnia, Saskatechewan, a forsaken tumbleweed town.
The concept of superior knowledge, also known as dramatic irony, is a frequent plot device used in literature, particularly in theatre. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as:
a plot device in which the audience’s or reader’s knowledge of events or individuals surpasses that of the characters. The words and actions of the characters therefore take on a different meaning for the audience or reader than they have for the play’s characters. This may happen when, for example, a character reacts in an inappropriate or foolish way or when a character lacks self-awareness and thus acts under false assumption.
Dramatic irony is deployed in Munro’s story with equal parts pleasure and misgiving. We know that Johanna is acting on a false assumption when she travels across the country to find Ken. Having only met her once, he barely remembers her. However, when she first arrives, he is in a seedy hotel too sick with flu to wonder at her sudden appearance. While Johanna is busy, he sees an opportunity to jog his memory and goes into her purse looking for ID. Discovering her net worth in the process, he decides not to question the windfall she represents and gratefully submits to her ministrations.
Like onlookers to Cinderella’s triumph, we cheer for Johanna: she richly deserves her prince. Like worried friends, however, we also hope Ken’s motive for marrying her is never revealed. Years later, one of the young pranksters hears of the birth of Johanna and Ken’s son and fervently wishes to distance herself from that younger, more malicious version of herself. Nevertheless, she is stuck with the knowledge – and the dismay — that her interference has brought forth greater consequences than she counted on. As the story closes, she is at her kitchen table doing homework, translating a line from Latin: Tu ne quaesieris, scire negas, quem mihi, quem tibi — You must not ask; it is forbidden for us to know.
Issues around transparency and the ownership of knowledge are particularly complex these days. I used the example of Munro’s story because Johanna and Ken’s mutual windfalls could only happen in the context of her ignorance and his discretion. Their coupling is extraordinary, but that haphazard way fate has of surprising us is not. The Latin admonition at the end of the story is key here: What exactly are we meant to know?
The fight over information and in particular online information, is being fought in different contexts with different players, all of whom feel they have a moral stake in the outcome. Here’s a brief overview:
- First, there are those who believe in radical transparency (or open data) when it comes to government and business and to some extent individuals. These are people who believe all creative endeavours should be open-source, meaning texts, movies and music should be available to the public for free on the internet. Aaron Swartz’s liberation of JSTOR articles is an example of this way of thinking.
- Secondly, there are those who envision a more mixed world, where matters of the public good are transparent and free, but that creators of texts, movies and music can control their work or in some way be compensated. One idea held by this middle-of-the-road group is the institution of a communal fee, similar to taxes, which would support creative endeavours. Larry Lessig’s work with the Creative Commons represents a step in this direction.
- Lastly, there are those who like the status quo and don’t feel we need more transparency. The belief here is that a lower level of transparency serves the interests of private industries and individuals best. Creators would be paid for their work and the distribution of it would be limited to those who have purchased it. Not surprisingly, members of the first group, the open-sourcers, tend to view this members of this last group, the closed sourcers, with suspicion. From their perspective, the latter tend to be oppressive über-capitalists or shady politicians. Countries like China and Iran, with their relatively closed internet systems, belong in this group too.
This is where things get complicated. This crowd of three groups can be divided further, but we need to throw them all back into the pot and stir. Now let’s pour the contents into two diametrically opposed bowls. The first represents those who believe a radically transparent system can liberate us; the second represents those who feel we should protect our privacy at all costs. The latter are hacker privacy mavens (who distrust governments) and über-capitalists (who fear mob rule).
This is how we end up with activists who see no contradiction in supporting the openness of a Wikileaks organization while believing their own privacy is sacrosanct. At least half of the time, they stand alongside some capitalists and politicians who like mixing openness and privacy too, in the same ways but for different reasons. It raises the question: is this to be the decade of odd-bedfellows or the century of it?
If you’re still following, let’s substitute the word boundaries for the words division or divide. Because setting boundaries around some very important issues is what all these groups are fighting for. And they each want primacy: they want to be the ones drawing the lines. To sort out my own thoughts, I started looking at how I felt about transparency and privacy. And this is when my ideas about lying came in handy.
I’ve written extensively about my difficulties with the Canadian healthcare system, so I won’t reprise the story here. What I will say is that I was lied to on a number of occasions and perusing my mother’s hospital records after the fact told me the lying wasn’t restricted to the face to face variety. There were significant omissions in those records and I was mischaracterized by a doctor I had had words with. In the end, it was a mischaracterization that had larger implications: problems ensued with at least three subsequent doctors, problems I believe were directly attributable to the words written by the first.
So being followed around by a lie acting like thug prompted me to look at lying generally. I became far more conscious of my own lies and I attempted, with great resolve, to banish them from my social repertoire. This created real tension: being consistently truthful isn’t easy and it made me aware that my anger at the healthcare system felt slightly hypocritical at times. The official term for this competition of thoughts is polyphasia:
The concept of cognitive polyphasia refers to a state in which different kinds of knowledge, possessing different rationalities live side by side in the same individual or collective.
Of course, looking at dishonesty as a whole is very tricky since individuals lie so often, for so many reasons and in so many ways. It’s simply too unwieldy a category of behaviour to characterize easily. Despite that, I still think it’s important to weigh our own dishonesty when we consider ideas around transparency and privacy, especially those ideas we’d like others to respect. Asking ourselves why we lie is a good place to start. If we do this, and do it honestly, I believe the policies we create will be better for it.
Jennifer Epstein, of Cornell University Medical College, studied everyday deception and made what I believe are some very comforting observations:
…the portrayal of everyday lies as disruptive of social life and hurtful to the targets of the lies is in need of modification. In keeping with the perspective described by Goffman (1959) and other social interaction theorists, we think that many of the lies of everyday life are told to avoid tension and conflict and to minimize hurt feelings and ill-will (Lippard, 1988, Metts, 1989). We think that people lie frequently about their feelings, preferences, and opinions and that when they do so, they are far more likely to feign a positive appraisal than a negative one.
If most lies and deceptions are relatively inconsequential, as is likely the case, then how do we determine which are not? Enemies and apologists along the transparency/privacy divide are likely to disagree about the scope and intentionality of various deceptions. Enemies will argue that when a deception results in any harm, then it is too consequential to ignore. Apologists may argue that some deceptions are necessary to avoid either greater harm or harm in other arenas. So determining a deception’s intentionality and scope is necessary to make an accurate judgement. The problems, of course, are that most of us simply don’t have the time to make judgements and judgements that are weighed carefully are subjectively weighed much of the time.
Larry Lessig is an academic and activist for internet freedoms. He is also the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. In his essay, “Against Transparency,” he makes a pithy observation about how easy it is to mishandle information. He uses an anecdote by Peter Lewis that appeared in the New York Times. Lewis described a meeting between a middle-aged man and a young woman in a Manhattan hotel, and he narrated the meeting from the point-of-view of the security cameras which captured it digitally. Despite his neutral language, his interpretation suggested a romantic rendezvous. He used this narration to show how a meeting between himself and his adult daughter, based solely on a trail of digital images, could be misconstrued. Observing the dangers of these epistemological shortcuts, Lessig asserts that:
The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological…Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.
Two operative words in this excerpt are mature and exacerbate, and they lead me to a discussion of my own judgement calls when it comes to being truthful.
What lies do I tell? In a professional capacity, I often encourage students by positively enhancing my responses to their writing. In short, I am a nice teacher who avoids negative criticism. When I teach immigrant or francophone students (I teach in Montreal), I help them by allowing them to re-write essays. Although I worry about the inequities this might create, I know my one-on-one work with them — which is detailed and thorough — helps them learn English in ways that will serve them not only academically but socially as well.
I think of my mother taking free, government English courses after arriving in Canada and the difference between her life and my father’s. He was not given the same opportunities and ended up being one of those immigrants who never fully grasped the language. I saw first-hand the limits and frustrations this imposed on him.
And so I lie to them. I tell them it will get easier when I’m not sure it will. I encourage them by saying their ideas are good and by consciously enlarging my definition of good. In subtle and delicate ways, I inch their grades upwards so that they won’t fail or become demoralized. I see their anxiety and their weariness and sometimes their isolation and I don’t want to add to it. I want them to experience Canada (or English-speaking Canadians) as welcoming and I want them to know there are kind-hearted authorities willing to support them.
And this is where I have trouble with some of those folks Evgeny Morozov believes are “net-utopians,” those activists who believe radical transparency via the internet is a good thing. They remind me of those students who think they have a right to know the class average every time I hand back an assignment. The ones who narrow their eyes suspiciously when I say no. And I say no because spending time around young people has taught me that a bit of artful discretion, appropriately managed, can go a long way toward not destroying their spirits.
What I fear is that the radical transparentists aren’t seeing the therapeutic side of this kind of dishonesty. They don’t understand that full transparency could lead to the elimination of emotional bolt-holes, and, as a consequence, opportunities to save face might be eliminated too. And not all individuals are up to that. Think of Jacintha Saldanha, the British nurse pranked by the two Australian radio hosts pretending to be the royal family. What they thought was harmless fun ended in tragedy and that was because the scale of Saldanha’s very public humiliation was unsustainable for her.
This tells us transparency isn’t a simple issue and it’s easy to march, blindly, into the land of unintended consequences. Saldanha’s experience is a cautionary tale — it warns us that we may end up being victims too.
I’m not sure what the answers are when it comes to the online transparency/privacy debate, and I suspect we’re in for a muddled few years before any solutions become clear. Partially it’s because our thinking about these issues needs to catch up to the technology. However, we can start the process by trying to understand the full implications of transparency; that starts when we take an honest look at how it would work in our own lives.