Reaching for the Probity of Brick


The Probity of Brick Leon Wieseltier, writing about the lightness of transparency in our age, compares transparency with the visual trick of actual physical transparency. The object of comparison being the plethora of glass building shooting out of the ground in Washington, DC (in fact, they’re near completion of one just around the corner from me).

The conceit of glass, after all, is that it makes the inside and the outside continuous–which is why, for example, the passage of a beam of light through a closed window became a symbol in medieval Christian art for miraculous insemination. No significant obstacles, no disruptions in kind. … Glass buildings are so honest, so guileless, so welcoming. The people at their desks see the people in the street, the people in the street see the people at their desks: community!

While Weiseltier doesn’t directly quibble with transparency in our government — asserting that secrecy, which is usually outed, holds little merit — his comparison of openness to the false connection of those separated by a sheet of see-through material does echo the criticisms leveled against transparency by others.

In many ways this criticism is fair to many areas of political transparency. In many instances, what passes for transparency or openness is not really transparent. Information released is not in full form, it contains data of little use, nothing out of which to build anything substantial. Communications mediums are used to transmit the all-too-common political messaging rather than engage in actual communication.

Recent disclosures of earmark requests by individual House lawmakers in no standardized form has shown that, while the effort towards transparency may be commendable, the information is still not material. Reach out and touch it and you’ll hit your hand on a glass window. The same could be said of lobbying disclosure. We are only given certain information, little of which provides a real view of how influencers are influencing government. In a provocative legal studies research paper, Anita Krishnakumar argues that the Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 1995 was not passed to provide the public a view of the behind the scenes sausage-making done by lobbyists, but instead to provide lawmakers with an accurate list of who was lobbying them.This applies to most information held by the government across the board.

While Weiseltier derides the glass structures that falsify connection, he praises the brick of Washington:

[D]o not fall for the palaces of light. Light reveals and light conceals. What is inescapable, in Washington, is the probity of brick.

The “probity of brick” is exactly what we are seeking in government transparency. Full disclosures of information in a structured format. That is a brick, a material and mutable object; not simply a view through a glass pane. APIs, RSS, XBRL, open data. Instead of seeing information in its place, let us reach out and grab a brick of it and a brick of another data set and get to building. I think that Wieseltier, for all his wariness of a see-through society, may agree with us more than he thinks.