Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dr Andy McStay, Media Culture, Bangor University: Position statement for the seminar series

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:
A whole 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 “general happiness”.
The key 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).
A 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 examples include:
… 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!
On 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.

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