Transparency for Whom?

May 2012  |  Status: Third Draft

Mark Zuckerberg says that he wants to build a society where radical transparency is the norm. He believes that transparency will create more empathy and tolerance in this world — a not altogether worthless goal, I’d say, despite his clear conflict of interest as the founder of one of the most successful advertising companies in the world

Julian Assange is another guy who has been crusading for total transparency. Unlike Zuckerberg, Assange’s definition of “total” doesn’t require every mom, pop, and their dog to spill their life secrets online. He seems to want transparency to be proportional to how much power the person(s) in question have in the real world:

The greater the power, the more need there is for transparency, because if the power is abused, the result can be so enormous. On the other hand, those people who do not have power, we mustn’t reduce their power even more by making them yet more transparent.

The main difference between Zuckerberg and Assange is not that one has a conflict of interest and the other doesn’t. Assange is just as obsessed with his anti-war campaign and editorial control over his organization as Zuckerberg is invested in Facebook’s profit margins. The real difference is that Assange has read his Francis Bacon, whereas Zuckerberg is slacking off on that homework.

Scientia est Potentia

Sharing or not sharing information has more than psychological effects on the people involved. It has a very real effect on the balance of power in this world — between men and women, kids and adults, nerds and jocks, employers and employees, merchants and customers, reporters and readers, politicians and the electorate, and of course among the countries of the world that Assange seems so good at pissing off at every opportunity.

Having a morsel of information about somebody’s life gives you a bit of power over that person, even if just by a little bit. On a small scale, knowing what someone is interested in gives you power to manipulate their spending habits. On a large scale, totalitarian societies cannot function without surveillance; Big Bro would be powerless unless he could watch you all the time.

Social networks don’t exist in a vacuum; they always interact with existing balances and imbalances of power. Making more information available to those who already have power helps them grab even more power, whereas making information about them available to those with less power helps to level the playing field. Right now, people who share the most of their secrets on Facebook tend to be ordinary citizens with not much power in real life. It is extremely difficult to find politicians or celebrities do the same; their PR managers wouldn’t allow it even if they wanted to — and for good reason, since every leak of information is a leak of power.

When your boss knows who you hang out with after work, he can leverage that knowledge to intimidate you. And you don’t even have to hang out with shady characters in order for this to work; many companies (often illegally) make employment and/or promotions decisions based on the completely innocuous familial circumstances of their employees.

On the other hand, if ordinary citizens can tell who the defense contractors are playing golf with, but the DoD doesn’t know who we’re talking to online, this asymmetry of knowledge helps to counteract a large asymmetry of power that already exists between the DoD and ordinary citizens. Selective secrecy can therefore produce better symmetry of power, in the form of better accountability.

Surveillance is never just about privacy. It has always been, still is, and always will be about power. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Big Brother or your abusive ex-boyfriend who is surveilling you. They have exactly as much power over you as they know about your life.

The “nothing to hide” mentality really boils down to “I’m okay with letting other people have power over me.” The usual assumption is that those other people will not exercise their power in unpleasant ways, even while you are completely at their mercy. It’s slave mentality at its finest. The Founding Fathers would have been ashamed!

The Tyranny of Transparency

But equality of power is not the only thing that matters. Even if we interpret Zuckerberg as charitably as possible and say that what he’s really pushing for is complete, symmetric transparency for everyone including politicians and celebrities, there’s something he’s still forgetting.

Engineering types often make the mistake of treating politics as if it were mathematics. But balancing power against one another does not make them “cancel out” like variables in an equation. All that power of remains at large in the public sphere, accruing charge like a plasma globe, and ready to discharge when provoked. Excessive power, even when balanced, create tension in the society, and that tension is often released with catastrophic consequences to the most disadvantaged members of the society.

If everyone’s life were completely transparent to everyone else, it would give everyone a large degree of power over everyone else’s lives. Everyone would be accountable to everyone else for everything they said and did, whether in private or in public; everyone would have to check who’s watching before they make any potentially unpopular move.

Even in a world occupied by people with much more empathy and tolerance than we do, certain moves will remain unpopular, not because they’re wrong, but just because they go against the trend. Humans are herd animals by instinct; we cannot help being suspicious of odd neighbors. Short of genetic engineering (which opens a whole new bag of worms), no amount of empathy and tolerance will eliminate this tendency, and no project for social engineering can succeed without taking human nature into account.

In every society, it is in the shadows and back alleys that revolutionary ideas are born and nurtured. New ideas need the shelter of privacy and secrecy until they have grown strong enough to stand in the ruthless court of public opinion. In a world where nobody has anywhere to hide, the cultural enforcement of conformity would be total. It would be a suffocating world — totalitarianism with a smiling face, as in Brave New World. Facebook itself might have never emerged in such a world, not to mention modern constitutional democracy.

The important question is how to distribute these pockets of opaqueness. Too much opaqueness, as mentioned above, help create and perpetuate imbalances of power. This is why I think Assange’s project — transparency proportionate to power — has so much more potential to make our world a better place than Zuckerberg’s naive appeals to empathy and tolerance.