Morozov on Sunlight

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While Sunlight has generally not been a target of Evgeny Morozov‘s criticisms, I was amused a few days ago to discover that I’m quoted in his new book, To Save Everything Click Here (page 117). Morozov suggests that Sunlight is a “bastion of technosolutionism,” quoting me from this 2010 Economist article: “There is a cultural change in what people expect from government, fuelled by the experience of shopping on the internet and having real-time access to financial information.”

Technology is at the heart of Sunlight’s approach to our mission, and we do see citizens’ technology-fueled expectations for information access as an overwhelmingly positive force in pushing for a more transparent, accountable government. (Indeed, other versions of the quote Morozov cites can be found throughout our work. I suspect that Morozov has overlooked the valuable work of our peers as well, whose ideas and work often inspire our initiatives.)

But accusing Sunlight of being a “bastion of technosolutionism” misses the mark enormously. I was initially torn over whether to write about the skepticism, nuance, and substance that help fuel Sunlight’s work, but then I came across another passage from Morozov that provides a perfect opportunity:

How do we ensure accountability? Let’s forget about databases for a moment and think about power. How do we make the government feel the heat of public attention? Perhaps by forcing it to make targeted disclosures of particularly sensitive data sets. Perhaps by strengthening the FOIA laws, or at least making sure that government agencies comply with existing provisions. Or perhaps by funding intermediaries that can build narratives around data—much of the released data is so complex that few amateurs have the processing power and expertise to read and make sense of it in their basements. This might be very useful for boosting accountability but useless for boosting innovation; likewise, you can think of many data releases that would be great for innovation and do nothing for accountability.

In this passage, Morozov outlines what he sees as a good faith approach to creating government accountability through open data. This passage reads like an intro paragraph to a Sunlight Foundation strategy document or activity report. Let’s try it again with links:

How do we ensure accountability? Let’s forget about databases for a moment and think about power. How do we make the government feel the heat of public attention? Perhaps by forcing it to make targeted disclosures of particularly sensitive data sets. Perhaps by strengthening the FOIA laws, or at least making sure that government agencies comply with existing provisions. Or perhaps by funding intermediaries that can build narratives around data—much of the released data is so complex that few amateurs have the processing power and expertise to read and make sense of it in their basements. This might be very useful for boosting accountability but useless for boosting innovation; likewise, you can think of many data releases that would be great for innovation and do nothing for accountability.

I could have added links to each letter instead of each word. Sunlight’s work is varied and complex, and definitely can’t be adequately summarized as “solutionist” — Sunlight lives at the intersection of journalism, advocacy, technology, and political power.

My screen shows 579 pages of blog posts on just the main Sunlight blog, covering our activities since our founding in 2006. If you read all of them, no doubt you could extract some sentiments that you could call “solutionist.” You’d also find skepticism, optimism, public dialog, exuberance, curiosity, and all the various signs of people in an organization engaged publicly in the complicated work of government transparency.

We think about risks like “solutionism” (I referred recently to the “triumphalist” view of legislative versioning), just as we think about the risk of relying too strongly on an inside (or outside) advocacy strategy, or the risks of advocating for transparency in the wrong places. (You’d be unlikely to conclude that Sunlight endorses a “monitorial democracy,” though, if you were familiar with the depth of our writing and thinking on the topic.)

Sunlight’s conception of open data is not agnostic to political power, refuses to be reduced to splashy data portals, and serves specific needs to help create valuable journalism and public dialog and a more substantive politics.

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