Posted by an Honored Guest
It is our distinct pleasure to introduce a guest column today by philosopher, technologist, commentator and blogger, David Weinberger, Ph.D Co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, Dr. Weinberger is currently serving as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He is one of the world's leading experts on how the Internet is changing human relationships, communication, and society. Here Dr. Weinberger clarifies Internet transparency and dispels the myth that it's an absolute.
Transparency and Shadows
Transparency sounds like fairness. You can't be against fairness. All you can do is argue over what's fair and what isn't. Fairness is like motherhood only better, because you can argue against motherhood, as every junior high girl who's taken a sex ed class knows first-hand.
But transparency isn't like fairness. There are times when we shouldn't be transparent. And, unlike fairness, transparency is never enough to justify behavior: Transparent Hitler is still Hitler.
Nevertheless, transparency is generally a good thing. In fact, it's what the philosophers call a prima facie good: You don't need a justification to be transparent, but you do to be not transparent.
So why is transparency only now the "In virtue," the one written on the lunch boxes the cool kids carry? Thanks to the Internet, customers and citizens can see through companies and politicians. We're talking with one another about the products we buy, and we're telling one another the truth. Your business is already transparent -- Haha, we can see your underwear! -- so you might as well embrace it and claim it was your intention all along.
Transparency doesn't travel alone. By embracing transparency, a company makes some implicit statements: We have nothing to hide. We trust you enough to give you information that we used to keep secret. We're not going to try to snow you (any more). We are honest. We deserve your trust. We're okay with being seen as fallible mortals. We are good people.
And it goes beyond making a small change in the tone of PR. The promise of transparency is that the customer is being put into a new relationship. Instead of treating customers as couch potatoes bred to be bathed in the hostile photons of marketing messages, we're going to assume we're all adults. We're going to do our business as if it were a matter of mutual benefit. No trickery, no hype, just quickly coming to agreement about what's in each of our self interest.
Of course, saying you're transparent and being transparent are different things. A company can think it's being transparent because it's releasing information and because it's allowing employees to blog about the business' inner life, but subtle and not-so-subtle forces can turn transparency opaque, or at least translucent. For example, management body language can tell employees that if they blog anything except happy face news, they may not do so well in their next performance review. Or, the company may decide to keep some information classified not because it's truly secret but because it would show the company in a less than flattering light. Because no one insists on absolute transparency, which would include installing webcams in the executive bathrooms, it's always a matter of degree, and that leaves open the possibility that companies will think they're being transparent enough because they're letting customers peek through the peep hole, when transparency requires at least leaving the blinds up now and then.
So, transparency is generally a good thing, even if it isn't an absolute. It is especially good -- in fact, it's becoming a requirement -- in those elements of the business most used to subterfuge and manipulation. (Hint: Marketing and PR.) In a culture built by open and honest conversation among customers, techniques such as astroturfing are especially despicable because they abrade trust. It's bad enough when messages from people within the business pretend to be personal when they're in fact written by the PR department or generated by marketing bots. We've learned to expect such communications to be lies. It's far worse when messages purporting to come from customers are lies because now we can't even trust one another.
So, all hail transparency... except...
...Except it's important that we preserve some shadows. Opaqueness in the form of anonymity protects whistleblowers and dissidents, women being beaten by their husbands, girls looking for abortion advice, people working through feelings of shame about who they are, and more. Anonymity and pseudonymity allow people to participate on the Web who perhaps aren't as self-confident as the loudest voices we hear there. It's even been known to enable snarky bloggers to comment archly on their industry, even if sometimes they play too rough.
Likewise, some meetings should be held behind closed doors. Privacy can be liberating. There are some things we're not entitled to know and some activities are better with the lights off.
Sure, there are abusers, but personal anonymity is the default in the real world -- if you live in a large town, not only don't you know everyone you see, but you're not allowed randomly to demand ID from them -- and it ought to be the default on line. The top-down demand for strong digital ID, which sounds good on paper, is likely to flip the default to the peril of political freedom, the growth of new social forms, and the liberating sense of personal play. Transparency is a prima facie good for institutions, but we individuals are more complex than that.
So, the mood of transparency sweeping through business is healthy and important. Unlike fairness, transparency is not a good in itself. We need to use it with our eyes wide open.
David Weinberger on Transparency and Opaqueness
David Weinberger, one of the deepest thinkers I know, has guest posted a piece about Transparency and Opaqueness at Strumpette. The recent brouhaha between Jeff Jarvis and Strumpette's anonymous band of bloggers is perhaps the proximate cause of David's post,
Tracked: Aug 10, 06:13
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It is a pity. I do not know enough English to understand perfectly what you are trying to say to us. And now I donÂ´t have time enough to look at the dictionary. But anyway I think that transparency is an attitude built, in terms of company and other organisations, as a rational, logical and adult behaviour. When costumers and people in general are understanding where they/we are (thanks to the new technology), it is important for the companies to see what their power is and how they have to change the relationship with them.
If your readers aren't careful they may slip into thinking you are conflating the commercial secrecy typically desired by an organisation with the human right to privacy as enjoyed by individuals.
An organisation may conspire to encourage its employees (on pain of termination - no more) to refrain from exposing commercial secrets and any other 'sensitive' material, while on the other hand, the better organisations may greatly minimise this secrecy, reinforcing it by an internal policy of encouraging unrestrained public discourse.
Discussion about commercial organisations should be carefully distinguished from an individual's right to privacy, which includes the right to remain anonyous and unattributed to any of their anonymously published works (until death).
People are inherently private beings, for whom public speech is a deliberate act which should of course be freely enjoyed, but similarly should not be coerced. Transparency for people is an inherently bad fit. For people we have honesty and integrity.
Organisations however are a different matter. Their secrecy is protected by the mutual consent of their employees, presumably for competitive advantage in the marketplace. You can evangelise transparency to counter the insidious default of blanket secrecy. Perhaps the web changes things and gives a commercial advantage to the more transparent organisations?
Maybe I'm not clear myself, but I hope you can see where you risk confusing individual privacy with commercial secrecy through intermingling of these as metaphors for each other.
"Organizations however are a different matter. Their secrecy is protected by the mutual consent of their employees."
No. Secrecy is mandated by management in order to protect the interest of the stockholders. Information is a competitive advantage, period.
Wth regard to confusing a person versus a corporation... keep in mind a corporation is recognized as a legal person under the law. Under that doctrine, a corporation enjoys many of the rights and obligations of individual persons, such as the ability to own property, sign binding contracts, pay taxes, have certain constitutional rights, and otherwise participate in society.
As to some of the other language you use, you clearly show your bias, e.g. "Insidious default of blanket secrecy," "An organization may conspire."
Comes down to this, you believe that "the better organizations may greatly minimize secrecy by an internal policy of encouraging unrestrained public discourse." However, that is a faulty premise and wrong conclusion. A company that does not control its intellectual property by allowing unrestrained public discourse is not a company for long.
It doesn't matter who mandates secrecy, if those who are privy to it don't support its continued secrecy then any mandate is moot.
I don't seem to recall Thomas Paine writing "The Rights of Man and his Incorporations"...
As to 'bias', I am a human being not an impartial observer. I evangelise the rights of the individual above the corporation. Heaven forfend the day the former should submit to the latter, whether in the name of journalistic balance or not.
As to whether secrecy is a good survival trait for organisations in the future, we shall see...
In a world of total information awareness, it may be that Oscar Wilde has the last word: the one thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.
"It doesn't matter who mandates secrecy, if those who are privy to it don't support its continued secrecy then any mandate is moot."
- No. It does matter. As a stockholder, I own the company. I have managers who do my bidding. I ABSOLUTELY want then to protect my intellectual capital. It is their duty!
"I evangelize the rights of the individual above the corporation."
- No. You preach that no owners have inalienable rights to trespass.
"Heaven forefend the day the former (man) should submit to the latter (corporation).
- Don't. But don't ask me for anything either.
"As to whether secrecy is a good survival trait for organisations in the future, we shall see..."
- No. We don't have to wait. We have seen repeatedly in history where the lack of the protections of property have lead to societal bankruptcy. Capitalism and property are synonymous.
You seem to be shocked, as if you fear my ideas threaten the very foundations of capitalism?
In case you have heard otherwise, I wholly support the concept of commercial secrets, the ability of an organisation to own them and the privilege to prosecute those who steal them.
I'm simply saying that commercial secrets necessarily require the cooperation and mutual interest of all those privy to them. Companies, as their name indicates, are groups of people who have come together in pursuit of a common cause, and represent themselves as if a single entity. Nevertheless, the company remains a group of individuals. None of them can be considered a thief of their own secrets. These secrets are maintained by trust, and by no more severe a consequence for compromise than a parting of ways, and a considerable impact upon reputation.
Would you support a greater punishment?
"Nevertheless, the company remains a group of individuals. None of them can be considered a thief of their own secrets."
No. A company is a single entity that hires people to serve it. With regard to any employee who divulges secrets... indeed that is a violation of trust... fiduciary trust. An employee who benefits from divulging secrets would indeed be stealing.
With regard to compromising that trust upon severance... that of course depends on the extent to which the corporate general counsel anticipated that eventuality and planned accordingly, i.e. NDAs, non-competes, etc.
Lastly, as to appropriate punishment for individuals that compromise a company's property, intellectual or otherwise... I think they should be hung by their toes above hot coals and razor wire. I'd serve the carcass to vermin.
But that, of course, is far afield of "Transparency and Shadows." Let's return to the topic.
Thanks for commenting.
Transparency's intent is expression; be it calumny or whistle blowing. I'm reminded of a quote I read a few days ago:
"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." -Noam Chomsky
David, I've actually gone a step further with the notion of translucence. In most instances, the extremes of transparency and opacity are more favorable for consumers than any muddling in between. I made the case with journalism as an example, with the clear delineation between news content and editorial. Those caught in between risk further alienation because the consumer/judge isn't sure which one master you were attempting to serve.
Transparency is an ideal, and it is utterly intangible. It may be a noble goal, but in today's PR it is too often sold as a tactic or a strategy.
David, in most cases full disclosure on the first meeting creates potential overwhelm, and does not serve the purpose of the dialogue.
My experience is that we need to be sincere, consistent, and in integrity. And we need to keep our wits about us.
But we DON'T need additional layers of "protection from The MAN"... that challenges me to believe that you think I might not have a mind of my own. Believe it or not, I'm MENSA-smart and fully capable of making decisions for myself.
I also believe that entrepreneurship and capitalism is healthy for me, my employees, my vendors and the economy. I know you're not down on leadership and capitalism in general, but the Manifesto could use some polish to clarify what you might REALLY mean.
David McInnis, CEO of www.PRWeb.com has composed an interesting post this evening that appears strong... but I believe he's seeking insights as well. Let me know if it resonates: http://www.davidunleashed.com.
Let me know your thoughts, and thanks for opening the door to intelligent dialog.
Mark Alan Effinger