Transparency and Orthodoxy

I’ll start by apologizing to my friend Eric Mill, who I drafted into an ill-advised discussion on this topic, on Twitter for crying out loud, at about 2am his time. It was like dragging a cat through a keyhole, and I’m sorry, Eric.

Here’s the post that set me off:

Basically, Chad Whitacre declared that anyone in arm’s reach is now subject to his policy of perfect transparency, which he calls Radical Honesty. It’s a genuinely interesting experiment in operating as openly as possible. Obviously, this experiment can put him in conflict with others. He seems quite accommodating of individuals. Journalists, though, are different:

With journalists I’m much more comfortable requesting openness. They’re writing for the public record, and it benefits readers and keeps us both honest to have the raw material on record as well.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to say it: I find Whiteacre’s policy upsetting. It implies first that journalists should not be trusted unless they are subject to perfect, live, real-time transparency. Second, the policy suggests that Whitacre himself should not be trusted without his Radical Honesty in place. What a terrible, inhuman way to approach the world.

If the goal of every human interaction is total honesty or some kind of orthodox transparency, Whitacre’s policy makes sense. In the process, though, the policy dismisses a mountain of very basic, very useful social contracts that create meaningful relationships between humans. Those social lubricants are, after all, what make us human.

A genuine conversation between two people brings with it a kind of negotiated intimacy and implicit trust. At its most intimate, you’re talking with your partner before you go to sleep. At its least intimate, you’re talking to a journalist. Wherever you are on the spectrum of intimacy, there are norms and those norms create trust that make your connection to them as human beings stronger. That depth of connection – even just a little – has an enormous influence the meaning and content of the conversation.

Hold that sense of trust, intimacy and connection in your mind. Now imagine holding those same feelings with someone wearing Google Glass. Those feelings are gone. Your feelings of intimacy and trust are now inverted, and you have to assume that everything you do and say is going to be recorded and published unless you insist otherwise. Even then, you have no good way of enforcing your preference. Trust is gone, and so is the candor, and the human being in front of you has turned into a soulless recording device.

Perhaps with this in mind, Whitacre argues that because we’re talking about journalists, the rules are different. They’re acting not as individuals, after all, but as agents of an organization with an obligation to the public and an intention to publish. That’s certainly true, and that’s why we have useful norms for interviews: journalists ask at the beginning of an interview if they can record it. You’re free to answer yes or no, and you may even record your own copy of the conversation. So far, so good on the transparency front.

Whitacre, though, believes that actually broadcasting the interview in real-time is necessary for Radical Honesty. In doing so, he’s breached those norms and subjected the journalist to terms that anyone would find uncomfortable. And for what reason? “It benefits readers and keeps us both honest to have the raw material on record as well.” In fact, the benefits of real-time surveillance to the reader are weak and we’re back to this poisonous assumption that nobody can be trusted.

Obviously, Whitacre doesn’t have any kind of power to compel others to participate in his experiment. The journalist declined, and that’s all fine. That doesn’t make it any more palatable, though. Radical Honesty may be presented as an experiment, but it seems undeniably provocative, even normative.

That’s what I had in mind when I referred to this approach to the world as “inhuman.” I didn’t do that casually. I mean it literally. The utility of transparency in the conduct of an company or a government agency should not be confused with the utility of transparency in a human life. The effects are not the same. Transparency in institutions builds trust. Transparency in individual relationships can erode trust by removing and inverting our basic assumptions about human interaction. We are not companies, we’re humans.

None of this is to say that Whitacre has any kind of ill intent. In a world of ubiquitous sensors and networks, he’s wrestling with the same questions we will all confront eventually. As we approach these questions, I’m arguing that we cannot simply dismiss the norms we’ve built over hundreds and thousands of years. They are built so that we can easily recognize each other’s rights, agency, and fundamental humanity. Taking that away for the sake of orthodoxy would be a terrible mistake.

In the course of indulging my late-night Twitterfight, Eric suggested another approach to this: that he prefers himself when he is most transparent. Put this way, it’s less about trust between people, and more about allowing someone to present their most authentic self. I think that’s fine, but it ends where my nose begins. If you can only feel truly authentic by unilaterally renegotiating basic social contracts, maybe your struggle shouldn’t be with everyone else’s expectations, but rather integrating your authentic self into the same rules that the rest of us labor under every day.

2 thoughts on “Transparency and Orthodoxy

  1. Thanks, Gunnar. As mentioned on Twitter (I suppose I shouldn’t drag the conversation back there. ;-), this comment on a thread about a privacy-related issue on Gittip may round out the picture. My TechCrunch post shows some degree of wrestling with the sort of issues you raise; that comment has me wrestling to a much greater degree.

    While we may disagree on my approach to the press, I think we converge when we move towards the other end of the “spectrum of intimacy.” I hope I’m careful not to coerce others into divulging themselves in ways they are uncomfortable with. Certainly there’s plenty I don’t broadcast about my own private life. So, I don’t “simply dismiss” social norms regarding personal privacy. My hope is for a society characterized by trust, but of course trust has to be earned, it can’t be bought or forced. And even in a perfectly trustworthy society, any given individual qua individual should still be free to not share.

    My approach to the press is informed less by mistrust and fear than it is by disinterest. I don’t really care about TechCrunch. I don’t see any value for my company in having a ho-hum story float and bob down the tech press stream. For me, the open interview *is* the story. Any write-up is secondary, and at best resonates with and points back to the interview (Andrew Leonard’s story on Salon is my favorite so far; by the way, he’s a counter-example to your suggestion that my policy, “anyone would find uncomfortable.”). However, the most poignant and “human” calls I’ve done haven’t been written up at all, and really couldn’t be written up without losing something essential. And even then, the many relationships that are most valuable to me personally, I don’t even try to shoehorn into the Internet. The Internet is too small for that. :-)

    The difference between the two ends of the spectrum of intimacy is significant, in my view. I think that more openness and transparency in the world of corporations and governments and journalism ensures more privacy for the individual in her private life, because it makes these larger systems more accountable to the individual.


    1. I’m not at all surprised, because you’re so obviously thoughtful about every other aspect of the project, but still happy that you’re actively working through the consequences of privilege, privacy, and the best way to negotiate all the competing needs. I’m still leery, because the next few years are so obviously going to reshape how we understand these issues, but I’m a little more comfortable knowing you’re doing the hard work that will help frame the discussion. Thanks!


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