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May 3, 2007

transparency and the Millennial generation

Most participants at last weekend's Mobilize conference (median age, about 25) maintained that their generation demands transparency, and this is one of their defining characteristics. In general, I support claims that the Millennials are distinctive. I'd be the last to try to rebut the idea that they are especially idealistic, for example--or especially good at collaborating in decentralized ways. There is evidence to support these assertions, and I want to reinforce a positive generational self-image.

However, I'm not sure about this generation's commitment to transparency. First of all, Americans have been in favor of openness for a long time. According to Robert Wiebe, the Progressives of 1900-1924 believed that:

The interests thrived on secrecy, the people on information. No word carried more progressive freight than publicity: expose the backroom deals in government, scrutinize the balance sheets of corporations, attend the public hearings on city services, study the effects of low wages on family life. Mayor Tom Johnson of Cleveland held public meetings to educate its citizens. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin heaped statistics on his constituents from the back of a campaign wagon. Once the public knew, it would act; knowledge produced solutions (Weibe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, Chicago, 1995, p. 163).

Justice Louis Brandeis spoke for the Progressive movement when he wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman" (Other People's Money , New York, 1932, p. 92).

Americans didn't forget about transparency over the next forty years, but for a generation or two it wasn't the major theme it had been before World War I. Then came Vietnam and Watergate, and again "sunlight" was the rallying cry. The Congressional class of 1974 and their nonpartisan allies won the Freedom of Information Act, campaign finance disclosure laws, registration requirements for lobbyists, open-meeting and sunlight acts, open committee hearings, and many similar reforms--all within a space of a few years. The very names of Public Citizen and the Public Interest Research Group suggested a commitment to free information and openness that was characteristic, I would argue, of the Boomers.

If enthusiasm for openness faded slightly, perhaps it was because information, alas, is not power. People do not just need data to act effectively. They also need motivation, coordination with other people, and resources. The open government reforms of 1973-6 were good, but they did not fundamentally change politics.

As for the Millennials--I don't know whether surveys have measured their commitment to transparency. But I do know that they are coming of age in a period when certain important interactions are less transparent, not more so. Who knows how Amazon determines what books might interest you? Back when neighborhoods had independent bookstores, if your bookseller recommended an item to you, you knew why. Not so with Amazon. Likewise, who knows how the National Assessment of Educational Progress is created? In the days when your teacher made up your tests, you at least knew who was responsible and could ask her why she had made her choices. Meanwhile, the national security apparatus has rapidly expanded after 9/11.

Perhaps the Millennials will rebel against all this opacity (the opposite of transparency); or perhaps they will be inured to it. In any case, I don't think their commitment to transparency is one of their defining characteristics.

May 3, 2007 7:30 AM | category: none


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