Clearly we’re not the first to
discuss transparency, but our take on the topic stems in part from a book
published on privacy, philosophy and new media I published last year with Peter
Lang. This examined privacy in the most diverse manner possible, but in
reading-up on utilitarianism for one of the earlier chapters, the quote below from
the 19th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, jumped out at me. It
comes from his 1834 essay titled Deontology:
kingdom, the whole globe itself, will become a gymnasium, in which every man
exercises himself before the eyes of every other man. Every gesture, every turn
of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible impact on the general
happiness, will be noticed and marked down. (Bentham, 1834: 101).
Academics will be well aware of
Bentham’s outline for a panoptic prison that required far fewer staff to
control inmates than had historically been the case, but the Bentham quote from
Deontology seems to suggest a
different understanding of visibility and watching. It is less repressive
than Bentham and Foucault’s prison musings, and note too the last sentence on
point is that transparency for Bentham is a positive concept to promote net
societal benefit and general happiness, and not just a punitive measure.
Bentham’s approach to mutual
watching and transparency as means of promoting “general happiness” should be
seen in context of openness and accountability, and Enlightenment doctrine on
making all things present so to generate understanding, and make life better. Although
today we can see the quote in a very sinister fashion, Bentham’s intention is
utilitarian involving maximum benefit for the many. This led me to account for
Bentham, and the first two types of transparency:
(1) Liberal transparency – historically, a
liberal and enlightenment norm that opens up machinations of power for public
inspection, and the use of reason and knowledge as a force for promoting
societal net benefit and happiness (Bentham 1834).
(2) Radical transparency that opens up
public processes and the private lives of citizens for inspection (Bentham
1834; McStay 2014).
recent utilitarian-inspired philosopher on privacy, Richard Posner, has gone as
far as arguing that breaking down privacy domains and promoting
transparency may be beneficial both
economically and morally.
I think the latter point on
morality is the more interesting dimension. Whereas a positive account of autonomy and privacy involves control about how to present and stage
ourselves, to whom and in which contexts we want to do this, this is the very
focus of Posner’s indignation. For Posner privacy is very much connected
to the negative ideas of withholding and concealing, particularly in regard to
personal uses of information. In building an account of transparency he points
out that seeking to control the flow of information is a wish to control
others’ perceptions, and overall this is a bad thing. To quote:
It is no answer that people have “the right to
be let alone,” for few people want to be let alone. Rather, they want to
manipulate the world around them by selective disclosure of facts about
themselves. (1983: 234).
On the types of things we
should be more upfront about, Posner’s
… full disclosure of sexuality, political
affiliations, minor mental illnesses, early dealings with the law, credit
scores, marital discord and nose-picking (all Posner’s examples).
If the pun can be excused, we
can unpick this quote. For example:
- On sexuality: if
people are more transparent this will lead to greater tolerance
- On mental illnesses:
greater public awareness, less prejudice
- On credit scores: more
efficient lending systems
- On nose picking:
Posner’s final example is presumably a point on shame and secrecy about something we all do!
first consideration – this is highly laudable. The problem is that each require
acts of forced openness. This leaves us with the third type of transparency,
or what we have termed forced transparency.
This is obligatory openness, or
transparency without consent or choice. In formalizing the idea of forced
transparency, this is undesirable because resistance becomes
tantamount to guilt, and the putting into practice of transparency would require
use of power along with the stripping of choice and autonomy.
All of this seemed to the
seminar series team to have fairly obvious implications for post-Snowden life,
but what we liked about the original Bentham quote is that it allowed for
positive conceptions of transparency, for mutual watching, for social benefits
in information use, and even for enjoyment of mutual watching – as with social
networking. This multidimensional character of transparency seems to fit well
with the range of academic, business, artistic and technology-based delegates
we have in Seminar 1, who each come with their own perspective on transparency.