Will transparency make us boring?

surveillance warning signI’ve long been a cheerleader for the sort of informational transparency that our increasingly wired world seems to encourage, if not make inevitable. After all, surely a world where it’s harder for those in power or authority to lie to us behind our backs is an improvement on the status quo, right?

I still hold that view, but Russell Davies has a column at Wired UK where he suggests that an unwanted outcome of that transparency might be to erode the sorts of brash personality that create change and new ideas:

I realised the other day that this is what’s happened to me. Everything I produce, however private or NDA’d, is filtered through the voice in my head, whispering, “how would I feel if this got online?” Because a slip of the email or a misplaced YouSendIt and it could easily happen. And, mostly, that’s good; it keeps the bullshit to minimum-required levels. It’s a reality we’re all going to have to get used to. It’s sensible to assume that everything you think is private might one day be read.

And this won’t just be by accident – this will be about policy. Openness is next to godliness. Sunshine is regularly touted as the best disinfectant. It’s just that disinfectant kills good bugs as well as bad ones, and there are some healthy things that need to breed in the dark. Good, positive, non-evil ideas sometimes need to be whispered in private before they’re shouted in public. Pretentiousness is occasionally necessary among friends. And if we’re afraid to be slightly different people in private, we’ll end up with a world of well-trained Michael Owens; sincere, good-looking people with no dark side, no sins, no doubts. Media training has driven the personality out of sport – I wonder if constant, enforced openness will drive it out of everything else?

Call me cynical, but I’m not sure sport ever really had that much personality, beyond the more ornery characters having freer license to be unpleasant in public… but leaving that aside, I still suspect Davies is overstating the problem, here. Yes, sure, there are some situations where ideas have to be brewed up out of sight of the public eye for them to gel properly, and a certain level of confidentiality in personal friendships is necessary. But speaking from my own personal experience, being continually mindful of transparency has made me more considerate of the feelings of others – not to the point of changing my opinions or ideas outright, but certainly making me consider their wider ramifications and think harder about how I express them. [image by jm3]

What do you think – will ubiquitous transparency make us a species of dullards, as Davies suggests? And if it does, is that a reasonable sacrifice to make for a kinder world?

4 thoughts on “Will transparency make us boring?”

  1. I don’t think transparency will make us boring. Look at the percentage of online communication that is insulting, vicious, jingoistic, simpleminded, xenophobic, paranoid, or any combination of the above, and it sure isn’t boring. I don’t think transparency will make us more thoughful, either.

  2. Thing is, Peter, most of the comments you describe are the anonymous ones. Imagine for a moment that every comment box printed up the IP address of the commenter, and a database used that to drag up the real name of the commenter* – that would be true transparency, and as a result I don’t think you’d get quite so much trolling of the sort you describe.

    *Yeah, this is a flawed scenario, but I use it only to illustrate a general point.

  3. Personally I think that secrets only hurt us by breeding distrust. Why do we need “confidentiality in personal friendships” — if we can’t be open with our friends then do they truly know us? And if they are telling us secrets then we only end up lying for them. We make light of marriages built on secrets and lies and state they are a good thing while all evidence points to the opposite. No, I think that complete transparency and telling the truth is a good thing.

  4. I make special note of the irony that the person posting above me in favor of “no secrets”, basically elimination of all privacy in all domains of our lives, is the only person so far to post anonymously.

    There are matters of personal privacy that are nobody’s business– No nefarious intent required. So you think the government should be allowed to tap all our phone lines and place cameras in our bedrooms? Nobody should care unless they have something evil to hide, right? Incredibly naive.

    There are times for the brutal candor that often only anonymity affords, and times to tread delicately on the feelings of others. There are also people and organizations that, for their own agendas, may well wish to do you harm: perhaps they disagree with your religious beliefs or political views, or simply want a competitive business advantage.

    Russell’s point is well taken.

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