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Friday, May 07, 2010

In Praise of Opacity

Transparency is a holy word.  One cannot go more than one or two paper presentations these days without hearing it -- usually intoned with the assumption that we've obviously now reached a subject that is inherently virtuous.  Transparency holds the status of words like "conscience" or "equality" -- what kind of monster would oppose them?  But transparency is in a different league even than these, because transparency is suitably procedural for modern sensibilities -- comfortably thin.  Concepts like equality and conscience are understood by many to include substantive content.  Not so with transparency.  If you're going to say something, or do something, you ought at least have the decency to do it transparently, to explain it down to its nub, so that we all "get it" -- so that we can see right through you and what you've said straight on without obstruction to what you really mean.  We want you to be ineffably clear -- not merely comprehensible but so limpidly translucent that we feel that we have before us your mind in full, and, more importantly, what lies behind it. There is also the sense that one who is not transparent is hiding something -- there's an ulterior motive at work that the person wishes to keep from general view.  And we don't like secrets.  We want it all hanging out there -- in the open and on public display, easily ingested and digested so that we don't waste any time and can move on undisturbed to our next feeding.

Is transparency an unmitigated good?  Is there something to be said for opacity?

Maybe so, but it may be useful to distinguish between two types of transparency: government transparency and personal transparency.

The concept of government transparency has been elegantly discussed by Mark Fenster, who identifies government transparency with the view that because governments are managed at a distance from the public, special efforts must be made to make government visible.  Obstructions must be removed, not only so that the public sees in, but so that the government can see out.  The concept of transparency is therefore felt by its defenders to be closely tied to democratic government -- Fenster writes that perfect government transparency implies no distance at all between government and governed, while a "weaker" government transparency balances the benefits of transparency against the government's need to withhold information -- to keep it secret.  Fenster concludes that it is in the nature of a large administrative state to be distant - closed off from transparent view, and in many ways opaque -- and that there has been something of a fetishization of the concept of transparency.  What democracies really need, he writes, is a responsive state.  Transparency may be one means to achieve such responsiveness.  But the opacity of large bureaucracies may be another.

To this, I find two additional features of paeans to government transparency rather irritating.  The first is the assumption that explaining well the reasons for action (or inaction) is itself a strike in favor of that very action.  If I, the government, have been plain-spoken and transparent with you, the citizen, about the reasons I act, you ought to count that in my favor when assessing the merits of what I do.  There is a kind of sleight of hand in this move -- a redirection of focus from judging how open I've been about what I'm doing to the actual merits of what I'm doing.  It is the making of an adverbial quality into a substantive virtue.  Second, I am just not sure that it is true that the more transparent a government becomes, the more trusting its public becomes.  The public may well become more skeptical, cynical, and disdainful of government as transparency increases.  The health of a polity, that is, may decline as transparency increases.  And the opacity of reasons has no necessary connection with their worth.  Just to quibble with Prof. Fenster a bit, more than "responsiveness," what democracies require is wise government. 

Maybe this can serve as a connection to the notion of personal transparency, something I feel even less sanguine about.  The assumption here seems to be that unless something is spelled out, plain, clear, and unmistakable, it simply doesn't exist.  It strikes me as a peculiarly modern -- perhaps even American -- way to think about communication and meaning.  One might think that the most powerful sorts of meanings are those that are never, or at least rarely, openly expressed.  Or, one might think that complex meanings -- ones that are difficult to understand because complicated, irreducible easily to words -- are perhaps even more interesting, more worth spending the time to master, than simple meanings.  But no, the creed of personal transparency starts from a very different place: everything must be stated, everything must be "gettable," and gettable rather quickly.  If we aren't communicating so that the mythical ordinary person in the street sees right through the point, that represents a failure of transparency that it is incumbent on us to remedy.  Difficulty, irreducibility, ambiguity, and the layered and often recondite quality of human understanding -- these are not generally valued.  We just don't have the time.  But aren't these kinds of expressions -- and not the transparent chatter of daily life --often the most powerful, durable, and memorable?  It's not Brandeis we need, with his sanctimonious cleaning disinfectants, but Milton's opacity:

And when the Sun begins to fling

His flaring beams, me Goddess bring

To arched walks of twilight groves

And shadows brown that Sylvan loves  

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 7, 2010 at 11:19 AM | Permalink


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Frank, thanks for raising the Lessig piece -- a very sophisticated take on these issues.

Thanks also for pointing out Horgan's book -- I don't know it -- will look for it.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 10, 2010 8:58:32 PM

Here's another example from the health care context:


And there's the Lessig reconsideration:


As for personal inscrutability...it reminds me of the "mysterian" movement described in John Horgan's book "The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation." I also recall an understated tribute to Ernst Mayr: he refused to be "completely known" by others.

Posted by: Frank Pasquale | May 10, 2010 8:42:12 PM

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