Taming Tapscott’s Leviathan


Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of The Washington (D.C.) Examiner, and strong  ally of Sunlight’s thirst for more transparency of information, attended the Personal Democracy Forum 2008 conference in New York, to appear on the panel that I convened. It was his first, and based on the refection he posted to his blog, it sounds like PDF has a new convert. Mark reports that it was not only quite memorable, but he also became infused with “a heightened sense that we are on the cusp of profound, even revolutionary changes in government and public policy thanks to the Internet.”  He adds that, as a conservative, he doesn’t use the word “revolution” lightly.

He writes that two things struck him at the conference: one being the staggering magnitude of the possibilities as a result of the explosion of information technology, and the other being how progressives have embraced this revolution quicker and more thoroughly than conservatives.

Mark, as a good classic conservative, fears what he calls “Leviathan,” or “the all-powerful central government.” Seeing how inept the federal government is currently with information technology it’s very easy to get lulled into a false belief that there is no way it could ever get so deviously savvy to pose much of a threat. But of course Mark is correct to fear the potential of an Orwellian Internet-empowered centralized power. You’ve got to believe that sooner rather than later the feds will wake up and embrace this technology. The question is, will it be used for good or ill? And here at Sunlight, as well as with our friends and colleagues, we are dedicated to opening up the government with these new tools so that we can achieve a much more robust democracy, preventing Mark’s monstrous scenario.

It’s possible that one or the other of two scenarios will be realized, either we use information technology to tame and neutralize the beast, or else it will use these tools to crush what democracy we have left. Back in 2000, Lawrence Lessig wrote, “The next great hope for the information revolution (is) that we might be able to learn as much about governments and business as they have learned about us. That this might be the end of their effective privacy, just as it has effectively been the end of ours.”

Mark says he wonders if we will “…discover that the Internet empowers the wisdom of the crowds…to expand individual autonomy and group cooperation, while minimizing and rationalizing government power…” Leviathan should be kept from controlling the Internet, he writes, leaving a free people to choose their own destinies. This is what we are working toward here at Sunlight.

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  • Interesting post. I’d like to suggest one other possibility. That government, hampered by strict rules on security and privacy, gets left behind when it comes to web 2.0. Government web sites are limited by the types of technologies they can use by less than net-savvy lawmakers (for example, cookies can’t be used on most government sites). Unless government adapts, the result may be more sites like yours, that serve to get needed information out of government.