A Challenge from Beth Noveck


Late last week, after the Sunshine Week Lessig lecture, the always thoughtful Beth Noveck — law professor and director of both the Institute for Information Law and Policy and Democracy Design Workshop, and friend — compared the Lessig speech to a June 2007 speech, by open-source-licensing crusader Eben Moglen.

Beth said Moglen is an optimist who is inclined to trust people’s ability to collaborate and work together. She wrote that his take on government is revolutionary and evolutionary. Lessig is a pessimist, she says, full of dismay at the state of the body politic, yet wants to preserve the status quo ultimately. (I’m not sure I completely agree with the assessment of Lessig as pessimist but that’s not the point I want to make right now.)

Beth says that the best approach is a mash-up of both approaches:"Lessig’s orientation toward action and pragmatism with Moglen’s boldness of vision." She advocates that we take a whole new look at government institutions and governance, and start using technology to empower citizens in order to fundamentally change the way government works.

We need to stop viewing our institutions of government and governance as static and reified in their current form and, instead, start asking, not how to use technology to make Congress more transparent but how to use technology to make us more powerful.

I don’t want to blow up Congress (well, I do but that’s for another day) but to extend its intelligence by connecting the power of the network to the structure of the institution and to change fundamentally the way government works.

The idea that all we are good for is to blog about what happens in Washington or even to make maps and mash-ups of when and with whom the politicians went to lunch is to ignore the larger opportunity to get involved with making the science that contributes to our understanding of public health and obesity, analyzing the data about global warming, participating in the drafting of policies about these and other fields and overseeing the work of those who implement them through citizen juries assigned to every official.

Even though Sunlight is doing mashups of earmarks on Google maps and lobbyist meetings with lawmakers, and developing fun ways to visualize data, Sunlight is already heading in the direction that Beth suggests: experimenting with ways to engage citizens in research and in the shaping of government policy. We have a major new launch scheduled in this arena for next week.