Monday, 8 February 2016

An Information Society

A Proposal For a New 'Checks and Balances'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
“Power checks power,” wrote Charles de Montesquieu.  Yet power, to check power, rests on the disclosure of information.
The political philosopher Montesquieu, in the early 18th century, developed the political theory of the separation of powers, and with it, of checks and balances.  Through such a separation of powers, a government would be divided into three separate branches, each of which would serve as a check and a balance to the other two. Subsequently, Montesquieu's ideas have had a major influence on political philosophy – so that, today, democratic governments will typically (though not always) separate their legislative, executive, and judicial branches to guarantee continued stability and good governance.  It may seem a primitive notion today – namely, that power checks power – yet it really is the only way that we have.

However, given such a separation of powers, how should a nation know that this arrangement is working? How should one assess it? How should one confirm it? Separate powers can unite. Individual powers can gain the ascendancy. The answer is plainly: each branch of government needs to know what the others are doing – not only in terms of the various decisions which they take, but in terms of keeping open account of the way in which these decisions are carried out. And this needs to be public, or one loses not only public accountability and confidence, but the rich resources which are public thinking.



To put it another way, it is as simple as the disclosure of information. In fact, without the disclosure of information, there really can be no separation of powers. Therefore, the requirement for information is prior to the separation of powers. For this very reason, the various branches of government publish their information through government printing works – and more recently, through web portals.

But now, notice something about this information, which is of crucial importance to a nation. One doesn't need to go banging down any doors to obtain it. One doesn't have to apply for it. One doesn't need to pay for it. The basic information of government is ours. Not only do we have the right to such information – we have the information.

If only all of society would work in this way, from top to bottom: public officials, civil servants, professions councils, board members, business people – in fact, throughout. We know, from recent empirical advances, that transparency greatly moderates the exploitative power of individuals – and in so doing, greatly reduces the distress of a nation. Yet today, by way of specific example which is by no means unique, access to a single page of information in my home town Cape Town, through the provisions of a liberal Access to Information Act, may cost R30 000 in counsel fees alone – if anybody should be feeling clingy. This is well above the average monthly income, and an impractical prospect for most.

Yet information is critical to society. In the words of the philosopher Frederick Adams, it enables us to get “a fix on the way the world is objectively configured”. We need information before we can manage and grow a nation in an informed, considered, and impartial way.

In fact it may be the difference between the success and failure of a state. Wherever information is concealed, politicians accumulate personal fortunes, crimes are swept under the carpet, buildings rise without permissions, the poor are exploited, foodstuffs are unsafe – and a thousand things besides. In my own country South Africa, a bubbly young reporter pushed her way into a country estate, where she discovered blueprints on a wall. It was Nkandla – the beginning of a major information scandal, and unprecedented turmoil in the national parliament.

It is therefore critically important that there should be a way to shed light – through the disclosure of information – on rules, plans, processes, and actions, throughout society. Which is, one needs to know the why, how, what, and how-much in every sphere.

How far should this go? It needs to go far. Yet the application of the principle would be for each society to negotiate in its own unique situation. The bottom line is the need for information – not merely the right to it. And for the first time in human history, in our information society, this has become a real possibility.

Parallel to a three-fold separation of powers, therefore, it would seem crucial to propose another kind of separation: the separation of information. Duplication of information is not enough. Alter one copy, or destroy it, and the value of the other may be lost. In triplicate, information is secure. Three separate information databases would seem essential to secure the disclosure of vital information.

This should not be confused with a surveillance state, where the few have special access to information, and the power to exploit it. By and large, the concealment of information holds greater dangers than genuinely opening it up.

In early societies, houses and huts were often arranged in circles. So, too, were wigwams pitched in an oval, and wagons drawn up in a laager. Everyone was able to see into the heart of everyone else's world.  Yet through the course of history, this changed – and in many ways it has been to our detriment. While it is impossible, now, to return to such a society, it is possible to recreate one of its central features: namely, transparency. Nations, in order to thrive and survive, must have a high order of transparency.

7 comments:

  1. "Three separate information databases would seem essential to secure the disclosure of vital information."

    The idea is in the air! Except that it is more elaborate than just three databases, it's more like a distributed database, or no databse at all. Thi new file system makes files indestructible, « permanent »:

    IPFS is a new peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol.

    Here's a good overview : HTTP is obsolete. It's time for the distributed, permanent web

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    1. I ran it by a journalist friend of mine in the UK. He commented: "That's very interesting, a torrent or TOR network sharing websites and all that goes with them. I would not rule out that concept at all, come to think. The governments won't like it though."

      I would wonder, though, whether anything which cannot be plainly understood can be a good idea? People can understand "in triplicate", but tell them that it's distributed, and actually, it's not distributed the way you think ... Are we safe if we cannot understand our safety?

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  2. I'm basically a bit baffled by much of this post. Perhaps Thomas can offer an exec summary? But certainly, I liked the idea at the end, about the importance of circles rather than lines.

    Information, it seems, is usually distributed in a linear way - with the idea of the pyramid there too - except, as Perig I think is saying, on the internet where there is also a distributed, 'shapeless' form. Circles, as King Arthur understood, destroy hierachies, and improve communication.

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    1. There needs to be a separation of powers: legislative, judicial, and executive. That was Montesquieu's insight -- although it is not all that simple. This being accepted, my first observation is that this separation of powers rests on freedom of information. Such freedom of information was assumed by Montesquieu, though not made (very) explicit. This is why we have government presses, and more recently government web portals. Therefore, freedom of information is prior to the separation of powers.

      So often, however, this ideal of freedom of information breaks down. With this, the separation of powers breaks down.

      But now, let us not think only in terms of the three: legislative, judicial, and executive powers. Let us think in terms of a complex mix of all the powers which exist within a society. Since information is prior to the separation of (many) powers -- or we could say, the equalisation of powers -- we need freedom of information in every sphere. If we do not have such freedom of information, we shall have skewed power dynamics. A key tool in gaining power over others is the cloaking of information.

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    2. Kant’s said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” “A high order of transparency” that is achievable can only be rather limited, unless men can read each others thoughts through a “thought-reader”.

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    3. Although you had stated that in the text, Thomas, I feel more satisfied to see it in this exec form. "Since information is prior to the separation of (many) powers -- or we could say, the equalisation of powers -- we need freedom of information in every sphere." I wholly agree with this. Now, as an ex-wikipedian and great fan of wikis etc, I would say that the difficulty that is ahead is : organising knowledge. Very often, power hides in oversimplifications of knowledge, in conceptual hierarchies that transform "inconvenient truths" into anomalies, anecdotal data, fraud, or worse. That's what is often called hegemony, in the Gramscian sense.

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