What Is Transparency?

WASHINGTON - MAY 10:   U.S. President George W...

Wired editor and The Long Tail author Chris Andersen introduces the Conservation Law of Transparency — meaning you can’t be open in all things all the time. While that may be true, his argument subtly infers that transparency is an absolute. I’m not sure if that was intended, but it’s a false and important assumption to address within an otherwise interesting concept.

Chris’s explanation of the Law included descriptions such as “truly transparent” and “true transparency”. Even his phrase “can’t be transparent about everything all the time” suggests one either IS or IS NOT absolutely transparent about certain things and not others.

Here’s the problem: unless your context is physics (i.e., the ability for light to travel through an object), transparency is largely subjective, and varies across groups and individuals. Social norms rarely exist that allow agreement on whether something is transparent or not. Sorry, life’s messy.

Transparency has problems similar to its cousin, full disclosure, which was born in the halls of the SEC. It was intended as a regulatory guarantee that a company’s material news reached all stakeholders equitably, says my PR guru friend, Peter Himler. When applied liberally — beyond a narrow, technical circumstance — full disclosure and transparency fall victim to subjectivity, becoming nothing more than aspirations. Aspirations are noble, but NOT absolutes. I suppose you could be absolute in your commitment to an aspiration, though.

Also, Chris is wise to acknowledge the cost of transparency: “Transparency is hard work. Constantly updating the world on your status can become a job all by itself.” Indeed, a full, absolute commitment to transparency in every aspect of one’s life would be inefficient, and probably shut life down.

There’s also a cost — if not conflict — associated with ethics and standards. For example, would it be wise for a returning soldier from Iraq to be completely transparent with his four-year-old son about what it’s like to kill another man? Or, should a dinner guest be completely transparent about how disgusting the host’s cooking is? I would argue no in both circumstances.

So, what the hell is transparency, anyway? What do you think?

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Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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  1. I find it distressing that a law can be coined based on mangled paraphrasing of Lincoln. Chris should tone down his tendency to brand ideas and deal with the simple reality that we are all partially concealed to others. It's not news that people are sometimes open and often secretive. I'd agree about keeping mum about a bad meal when you are a guest, but, at some point, a veteran should be open with his kid about what happened to him in a war….

    But people are not institutions, so it is unreasonable to draw institutional analogies to personal privacy. And there's George W. Bush's face up there, so let's talk about institutions.

    When we accept public office, there are clearly defined rules — or were, between 1905 and 1980, and even less during the most recent administration, which ignored those rules — about what one must disclose. One of the standards of political practice should be a thoroughgoing effort to disclose everything possible to the people in order to provide an opportunity for informed debate. We do not elect people in the U.S. to protect us from reality, but to represent us in the face of reality. There are very few items of information that really need to be “secret,” and it is demonstrably true that the creation of levels of classification within government increases the secrecy of previously open information.

    Companies are not under that regime of disclosure to the same extent, but I believe they benefit from being mostly open. Too often, companies behave as though their secrets are all that keep them from failing in the marketplace, which is really an indicator of how little they concern themselves with the customer's concerns.

    Secrecy for secrecy's sake is the indicator that one is keeping too much back from your constituents or your customers.

    1. I can’t disagree with you on the excessive institution of laws — the
      problem with expansion is that it dilutes. I agree that a veteran should be
      open with his kid about what happened to him in a war, BUT only at
      (emphasize) “some point.” Delaying transparency would be appropriate. And,
      sure, people are different than institutions, but transparency is still an
      aspiration unless there are technical standards introduced (as with the
      SEC’s full disclosure). To be sure, George W. Bush could have benefited —
      hence the obligatory head shot. Whether your context is people, governments
      or companies, the fact is that distrust is friction to collective progress
      and individual long-term gain. That is why greater transparency is such a
      huge advantage for both.

      Wed, Dec 31, 2008 at 11:42 AM, Disqus

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