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Is Transparency A Good Thing?
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

The Latest WikiLeaks Revelations Suggest We Should Be Careful What We Wish For

The latest WikiLeaks revelation that much of the American government's secret diplomatic cables read like entries in a mean girls' burn book has got politicians and pundits blathering about how it might affect foreign policy, guessing if/where Interpol could apprehend the group's founder, Julian Assange, and wondering when the next batch of secrets will be released (rumored to be Bank of America emails in which execs come across as, gasp, heartless capitalists).

I'm struck by two things they're not talking about:

  1. How the revelations fail to tell us anything we didn’t already know or suspect, and
  2. Why unmediated "transparency" destroys institutional authority

Anybody who watches cable news knows that North Korea's Kim Jong-il is a nutjob, if only because of his bad Don King wannabe haircut, or that the smug facial expression of Iran's Mahmoud Admadinejad belies his utter detachment from reality. I could have told you that Merkel has no sense of humor and that Gaddafi absolutely knows how to party. It's no surprise that leaders in the Middle East love their terrorists and want to kill them, too.

What would have been shocking would be if WikiLeaks had told us something we didn't already know, like China secretly committed zillions to support free speech, or Silvio Berlusconi is using his polymath brilliance to negotiate an accord on climate change. I know I'm glossing over details in the cables (Pakistan's "for sale" sign for terrorists shopping for fissile materials is very frightening), but the general takeaway was that there are no real secrets when it comes to how American diplomats function; they think, talk and act like we would.

How disappointing.

Institutions -- whether political, cultural, or commercial -- are supposed to be something greater than a sum of their parts. That's why things like governments are more than loose affiliations of like-minded individuals, and the reason membership in a Facebook group isn't the same thing as real-world activism. Or why a corporate brand isn't solely what consumers say about it (or why they don't really own them).

Institutions are supposed to be something more...qualified by experience, authorized by consistency of operation, credible because of their ongoing responsibility, and required by society to fulfill duties that can't otherwise be crowdsourced. They are supposed to do things that we cannot.

The qualities that drive those actions don't have be kept secret but, conversely, we don't necessarily need to know them in excruciating detail. Negotiating peace treaties or manufacturing complicated technology gizmos is messy, complicated stuff, and anybody who thinks they are inherently qualified to understand and then judge every specific action involved in these processes is a self-deluded fool.

What does need to be shared and understood as explicitly as possible are the bases for those actions: purposes; rationales; intentions, and then open, honest sharing of progress on those actions. If institutions must first gain approval for the minutia after that, I'd suggest they no longer have any authority to act.

How scary.

Yet this is exactly what's happening. Patients armed with the expertise of an Internet search are advising their doctors on prognoses, or their lawyers on precedent. The last few years of political miasma in America has been a celebration of the crowd disenfranchising its representatives in government from taking action on its behalf. Just think how many individual investors lost money over the past decade because they thought they could know more, or do better, than expert financiers (TV commercials are running today that still hype this impossibility).

Unmediated transparency blows up the ideas of authority and expertise and replaces them with fantasies of individual empowerment and responsibility. Sure, there are exceptions (experts are human beings who are capable of missing things or making mistakes) but generally...no, overwhelmingly...putting institutions to the 24/7 test of public vote dooms them to social sterility.

Does the Internet empower us to dismantle institutions and replace them with nothing but our passing attention and volatile opinions?

What WikiLeaks and other revelations show is that this delegitimization is not without cause. Now that I know the U.S. State Department is as chatty and befuddled about world events as I am, I'm less hopeful it will accomplish any good. Once we’re told that Bank of America is out to get money out of people’s pockets I'll feel even less good about my own bank. But these revelations aren't inevitable. We do not have to suffer total, radical transparency, but it would require institutions to rewire their approach to operations and communications.

Institutions don't have a keeping secrets problem as much as a deserving our trust problem.

From a corporate brands perspective, businesses could start telling consumers the truth...oil companies aren't really inventing alternative energy options that'll put them out of business, toys are manufactured in China because it's cheaper, not better, and technology firms aren't as interested in enhancing user experience as they are in raising VC money and getting rich before the founders learn how to shave. Most marketing uses of the social web that promote entertainment and distraction -- the message implicitly that they're not really trying to sell anything, just talk -- could morph into telling us things that matter, are useful, and thereby deserve authority.

More truth from those in government would help, too, which would mean that it might find a new legitimacy and authority. Tell angry voters why they’ve got their facts wrong, or why happy party members should consider new or difficult issues.

Only then would revelations like those from WikiLeaks stop being so newsworthy because they'd truly tell us:

  1. Things we already knew because institutions had already told us, and
  2. Things we didn't care about because of the authority and credibility earned by point #1

The alternative is that we all become sausage makers, which I find a sickening thought. I don't want the job.

Added: 6th December 2010

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