Monday, March 26, 2007

Is Secrecy Dying?

An interesting new article in Wired Magazine suggests that transparency is the new king and secrecy is dying. I agree that there are too many secrets, and wrote about the potential for "radical transparency" in everything from military operations to business back in 2004. The problem, as usual, is power, and the Wired article highlights this issue by ignoring it: transparency is good and secrecy is dying as long as it's profitable, and not before. There is a high cost to early adopters of radical transparency, and the failure to view this game as an infinitely iterated game will most likely prevent any adoption of radical transparency in most cases.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that radical transparency ALWAYS makes sense IF you're the good guy. The quanum leap in radical transparency will not come until the public at large realize the corrollary to that rule: if you're not radically transparent, you're the bad guy.

This is so obvious as to be almost invisible.

Tony Snow: "...it's a reasonable and extraordinary effort on our part to help Congress do its job [by insisting that officials testify without a record and not under oath]"

14 comments:

Peter said...

Hi Jeff,

I recently got a copy of The Naked Corporation by Don Tapscott in which he argues for transparency. It's at the bottom of a stack of books to be read, so I can't comment it on just yet.

The whole transparency issue really hit me during the WTO demonstrations in Seattle back in 99. My wife asked why those people were so angry, and I found myself saying, "Well, some people don't believe that it's right for a small group of insiders to be able to make decisions behind closed doors which will then impact on all us...." After that it became hard not to think about the issue without getting ticked off.

Who died and left these people king, as we used to say back in high school?

Big Gav said...

if you're not radically transparent, you're the bad guy.

Nicely put.

I was listening to Cory Doctorow talking about David Brin's vision of "The Transparent Society" this morning and he also noted that transparency is great if you're at the right end of the power relationship - but not so great for the powerless.

I think there are some organisations that should be radically transparent - the government for starters - after all citizens paid for all that information to be captured - but there are some limits on how far to take transparency at an individual level.

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

Nicely stated.

Kadso

Jason Godesky said...

...but there are some limits on how far to take transparency at an individual level.

Really? Ayn Rand said, "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." She could've used some anthropology (Paul Radin's Primiive Man as Philosopher would present a particular antidote to the misconception that "the savage's whole existence is ... ruled by the laws of his tribe," for instance), but I think she's basically correct here, because the flip-side of our "privacy" is isolation. Those "leprous primitives" Rand so often decried (leprosy is a zootic disease contracted from domesticated animals) saw radical transparency and the intimacy of their tribe as the basis of their autonomy, not a compromise of it. Personal fulfillment needs that kind of commuity the way a plant needs water. Privacy becomes important when it's not reciprocated--when its' a society too large for everyone to relate to one another, and so your observers are effectively kept secret from you by their numbers, or when it becomes institutionalized, and the government can watch you, tap your phones, trace your email, and so forth, but you're not allowed to know what they're doing--not even allowed to read a transcript of unsworn testimony by the President's aides, given to your own elected representatives. That's when privacy becomes important.

And of course, if the need for privacy can only be justified because other people have it--just like a state that can only justify itself in terms of defending against other states--just how legitimate can that institution be?

Big Gav said...

Hi Jason,

Privacy becomes important when it's not reciprocated--when its' a society too large for everyone to relate to one another, and so your observers are effectively kept secret from you by their numbers, or when it becomes institutionalized, and the government can watch you, tap your phones, trace your email, and so forth, but you're not allowed to know what they're doing--not even allowed to read a transcript of unsworn testimony by the President's aides, given to your own elected representatives. That's when privacy becomes important.

And given that's the state we're in now thats why I think we need some personal privacy returned, while also breaking down the excessive secrecy put in place by a lot of our large institutions.

I also suspect you can think of some situations, even in a small tribe with few power disparities, where personal privacy could have some advantages...

Dan said...

I'm thinking secrecy is a vital glue for all modern human hierarchies, a requirement to maintain one way dominating power-relationships. When everyone is arranged in a structure they are not suited to or benefitted from, you've really got hide a few things here and there.

Switching it around, maybe hierachy emerges in humans to provide secrecy and privacy, which are needed to keep the poorer majority from realising their injustice.

Thinking about transparency and honesty in relation to different societies, I don't think there's any better indicator of a society gone rotten. It's basically societal neurosis.

Jason Godesky said...

And given that's the state we're in now thats why I think we need some personal privacy returned, while also breaking down the excessive secrecy put in place by a lot of our large institutions.

I agree that it's probably best to start with the privacy of the superhuman, immortal "persons" like corporations and states, but at the same time, a necessary evil is still an evil. Personal privacy isn't something we need to keep around; it's only made necessary by more malevolent forms of secrecy, but it's still quite malign all on its own.

I also suspect you can think of some situations, even in a small tribe with few power disparities, where personal privacy could have some advantages...

Of course, but those advantages of one person over another are precisely where power relationships begin, and the harm done to the society one depends upon far outweighs the benefit accrued to you, personally, as your privacy breaks down the essential trust of a tribal society.

technician said...

Just love secrecy and Torpark 2.0.0.3a is released!

Right... I'm a bad one.

Big Gav said...

Of course, but those advantages of one person over another are precisely where power relationships begin, and the harm done to the society one depends upon far outweighs the benefit accrued to you, personally, as your privacy breaks down the essential trust of a tribal society.

Actually I'm thinking more along the lines of the tribe having developed a whole lot of arbitrary taboos over time that serve no useful purpose, rather than individuals trying to gain advantage over one another.

An individual may decide he will flaunt a taboo - in private.

Is having enough individual privacy to enable this really a bad thing ?

Jason Godesky said...

Is having enough individual privacy to enable this really a bad thing?

I would say so. First of all, tribal societies tend not to develop taboos willy-nilly. Taboos tend to be much more sensible than we usually give them credit for. We use the term "sacred cow" to suggest a senseless taboo, because the English couldn't figure out why those superstitious Hindus wouldn't eat beef. Of course, Marvin Harris' classic essay showed us that there was a very good reason for that after all, so "sacred cow" takes on a somewhat different meaning.

Secondly, the secrecy is generally far more destructive than breaking the taboo itself; this has been a common theme in our own literature, my own favorite example being The Scarlet Letter. Most importantly, that kind of secrecy sets the idea that individual expression is opposed to social interaction. That may be the case where society is opposed to individual expression, but that's a characteristic of complex societies that need to suppress individuality in order to cope with overpopulation and the loss of human scale communities (150 or less), which also generally require hierarchy for the same reason. But in smaller-scale societies that nurture individual expression, the artificial opposition of such expression to community cuts off a person from the very social millieu that provides the confidence and strength to begin such an expression, and undermines the community necessary for it. It's anti-social, and if the goal is to allow for greater self-expression, it's self-defeating. As Paul Radin explained in Primitive Man as Philosopher, human-scale societies really only prohibit ambitions that threaten the community as a whole. All others--even self-destructive ambitions--are actively enabled and aided.

Big Gav said...

Hmmm - OK - lets say I accept that you're correct and privacy is worse than worthless in a perfect tribal situation.

How about our present day reality - would you concede individual privacy has some benefits there, even if someone managed to implement radical transparency across governments and the corporations, in light of the view that hierarchy is inevitable in "complex societies" ?

Jason Godesky said...

How about our present day reality - would you concede individual privacy has some benefits there, even if someone managed to implement radical transparency across governments and the corporations, in light of the view that hierarchy is inevitable in "complex societies" ?

Consider the implications of that condition. I agree that hierarchy is inevitable in complex societies, but how much hierarchy could really be sustained in light of radical transparency? Hierarchy developed so much secrecy with good reason; without it, hierarchy becomes all but impossible. And given that complex societies need hierarchy, that also requires society to undergo a significant reduction in complexity. In theory, this needn't be violent or catastrophic--theoretically, a "powerdown" scenario might be possible. I'm not sure how realistic that scenario is, but it's theoretically possble, and I'd certainly prefer to see it go down that way. Regardless, I think the answer is right there in your supposition, and that's what makes my arguments about privacy relevant today: the ultimate implication of radical transparency is the breakdown of hierarchy, and the simplification of society. Your hypothetical could only be a temporary transition. I agree we should probably start with the secrecy of large organizations like governments and corporations, but in the end, we'll need to give up our "right to privacy," as well. It's a necessary evil to counterbalance the much greater menace of government and corporate secrecy, but when those things are gone, that counterweight does more harm than good. When you start to implement radical transparency, rhizome follows.

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