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Seeing Through Transparency

Paul Doolan clearly sees transparency through philosophy.

Chances are you’re too young to remember Carly Simon’s tune ‘No Secrets’ from her 1972 album No Secrets, in which she sings to her lover “We have no secrets, we tell each other everything.” However, telling everything – all those past lovers, all those hidden fantasies – may not be the best recipe for a healthy relationship. The song’s refrain ends, “Sometimes I wish… that I never knew, some of those secrets of yours.” Perhaps we are in danger of discarding this wisdom, in a society where everything that is hidden is looked upon with suspicion, and transparency is hyped as a great virtue.

We are frequently assaulted by calls for transparency. A quick Google search on ‘the need for transparency’ delivers lists of reasons why more transparency is needed, especially in business, politics, and education. I am sure many readers recognise the boss calling for ‘a process of transparency’. Yet philosophical inquiry will reveal that transparency intrudes upon privacy, kills spontaneity, and robs the individual of interiority. In the Age of Transparency, interiority, secrecy, and Hermetic hiddenness are forms of resistance.

girl peering


Calls for ‘transparency’ betray an optical preference – a hidden assumption that the only knowledge that is worthwhile is knowledge for which the evidence can be seen. This can be summed up in the expression ‘Seeing is believing’. Other ways of knowing become secondary. Walter Benjamin further pointed out that the Scientific Revolution of Copernicus and Galileo set us on a course leading to an “optical connection to the universe” (One Way Street and Other Writings, 1979, p.111). And we talk about ‘eye-witnesses’, even when the witnesses relate testimony that was only ever heard, never seen.

We can trace the focus on optical transparency back to the Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries. The term ‘Enlightenment’ itself implies that the application of reason is a matter of drawing into the light what had been hidden in the darkness of ignorance. Transparency is a matter of making things visible.

The utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), while developing his thoughts on judicial discipline and reform, converted this idea into an idealised regime of hypervisibility. Bentham’s Panopticon, a design for a perfect prison, translates transparency into architecture. Bentham’s design is based on the simple premise that the more strictly we are watched, the better we behave. In plan the prison is circular, so that the inside of every cell is visible from a central watchtower in which sit the guards. The idea was that knowing that they are always potentially being watched would lead the prisoners to become law-abiding citizens. Bentham argued that his “simple idea in architecture” would result in morals reformed, as well as “health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burthens lightened, economy seated as it were upon a rock” (The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. IV, p.39). Imagine applying this principle to society as a whole: with all citizens exposed to constant close scrutiny, a community free from immorality, crime, and sloth would develop. Wouldn’t it?

The ultimate transparent society would require living in glass houses. That is just what happens in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 Russian dystopian novel We. Here, in the perfect society, citizens dwell in a world built mainly of glass. Only on official sex-days are they permitted to draw the blinds. The main character tells us: “Otherwise, we are always on view, eternally washed by light within our translucent walls.” Anticipating Carly Simon’s No Secrets, he adds: “We have nothing to hide from each other.” Elections are held, but for the sake of transparency, the secret ballot has been banished, and so every citizen openly votes for the incumbent Benefactor. However, the compulsion towards transparency doesn’t stop at the surface. The Guardians in Zamyatin’s world devise a medical intervention: the cauterization of imagination. With this simple procedure, total transparency is achieved. There are no more dark secrets, because there is no interior life anymore.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84) spent a great deal of his life mapping out an extended version of Bentham’s idea, to reveal the configurations of our own transparent ‘panoptic’ society. Foucault coined the term ‘Panoptism’ to refer to “an ensemble of mechanisms brought into play in all the clusters of procedures used by power… utilized first on a local level, in schools, barracks and hospitals… where the experiment of integral surveillance was carried out” (Power/Knowledge, p.71, 1980). In Foucault’s view, no all-seeing prison inspector was needed to ensure integral surveillance: no Big Brother, no Benefactor. Instead, a dispersed network of disciplinary regimes rooted in our educational and medical systems has already created a web of surveillance, with all watching all. Eventually this discipline turns inward, the individual freely choosing a regime of caring for his or her self, maintaining good hygiene, engaging in fitness routines, attending health check-ups, renouncing bad habits, and conforming to social norms.

Some have lauded the culture of transparency, arguing that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For instance, in The Transparent Society (1990), the American science writer David Brin predicted that we would soon have to choose between transparency and privacy. He optimistically suggested that our lives would be enhanced by giving up certain freedoms. For instance, in the cities of the twenty-first century, tiny cameras would perch on every vantage point, streaming their real time footage into the small electronic devices of all citizens. In typical Benthamite fashion, Brin believed that this would be a good thing. In this city, where all are watching all, street crime would disappear.

On the other hand, in his own The Transparent Society (1992), the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo argued that the proliferation of cameras and mass media would lead to chaos rather than serenity, and ultimately the very idea of reality would become eroded. He argued that techno-science was producing a mass media phantasmagoria – a world of merchandising images that’s causing us to lose touch with reality. However, in typically playful postmodern fashion, he wondered if this would be such a bad thing, our sense of a stable reality being only a reassuring myth in the first place.

Walter Benjamin had already anticipated the role that the camera would provide in constructing surveillance and transparency. By the early 1930s he was prophesying that the optical connection to the universe that we had assumed since the Scientific Revolution will inevitably lead us to relate to nature almost exclusively in a technologically enhanced optical way. With the advent of the cheap camera, he argued that the need to possess the object in the form of a picture becomes imperative, and predicted that the illiterate person of the future would be the person who is ignorant of photography. Today, indeed, the illiterate is the person who does not know how to use a smartphone. And the smartphone makes us transparent, as we are always on call, always available, always accountable, as we leave a traceable trail of texts and photographs, many of which we upload to public platforms in order to curate our ‘transparent’ online self-image.

Reflections Andrew Wrigley

The Digital Panopticon

Foucault died in the 1980s, but his work anticipated many of the technological developments and ideas of the internet age, in which we’re encouraged to be curators of an online self. In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), Shoshana Zuboff describes how American media tech companies have grown into surveillance empires, creating digital architectures that provide monitoring, analysis, prediction, and targeting of individual behavior. As we reveal our desires in our browser searches and chatroom comments, aspects of ourselves that were hidden, possibly even from ourselves, become transparent, and therefore visible to the algorithms that remain hidden in the machine. Here, the individual agent has been reduced from consumer to product. Our desires become products, sold in the online economy.

The idea that in the Age of Transparency tech companies thrive by sucking out, vampire-like, our hidden secrets, is the main message in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (2013). The movie of the book stars Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. Hanks, playing one of the founders of a giant Californian tech company, declares that we can only realize our potential by giving up our secrets, adding that “knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.” The mantra of the company is ‘Sharing is Caring’. In her determination to climb the corporate ladder, the main character, played by Watson, ‘goes transparent’, wearing a specially developed camera all day long, earning hundreds of millions of followers. During a public address at company headquarters, she declares ‘Secrets are lies’ and ‘Privacy is theft’. At the end of the film she hopes that some day the company will develop technology that will read people’s thoughts, adding, “the world deserves nothing less.” In the ideology of transparency, ultimately, the hypervisibility of our actions is not enough: one’s inner thoughts need to become transparent. In his poem ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, T.S. Eliot imagined a nightmarish scenario whereby some sort of magic lantern “threw the nerves in a pattern on a screen,” enabling a reading of the mind by deciphering the brain’s activities.

I mentioned that in Zamyatin’s dystopia, the Guardians neutralize the imaginations of citizens, making both privacy and resistance impossible. In our present age, secrets and otherness form obstacles to instant global communication. As the Korean-German philosopher Byung Chul Han puts it, ‘they are to be eliminated’ (Psychopolitics, p.9, 2014) – not like the imaginations cauterised in Zamyatin’s novel, but eliminated to the extent that they are cannibalized by tech companies.

Bentham knew that the possibility of being constantly watched affects human behaviour. In our expository society, where we willingly become hypervisible, the awareness that we’re being watched leads to the stress of continuous performance. In Louis Malle’s 1981 film Dinner with Andre, the character of Andre talks about how the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski gave up theatre because everyone is already too busy performing. With everyone performing so well in their daily lives, in so many social roles, theatrical performance becomes superfluous.

Social media has made this sense of continuous performance more intense. We hunt after authentic experiences, while gradually coming to the realization that we’re mired in media-saturated superficiality. In our stampede to reveal ourselves online, we make our lives, loves, and likes ‘transparent’. We click that ‘like’ button, or retweet the message, not because we simply like the photo, video, meme, or half-read article, but because we assess the effect our act will have in the curation of our online image. We crop and filter our photos; we learn to angle the camera from above and pout our lips, just like in thousands of selfies; yet what we reveal on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Vine (etc) are pixelated constructions, or in other words, the result of computations. Visual culture theorist Nicolaus Mirzoeff argues that through this process we have become trained “to see the world enabled by machines” (How to See the World, p.18, 2015). And with everyone performing while watching everyone else, as Han argues, the levelling effect of this total networking is conformity (Psychopolitics, p.10).

The ideology of transparency has become so persuasive that we inmates of the Digital Panopticon expose ourselves voluntarily. The prisoners of the Digital Panopticon are, at the same time, its builders and guards. As such, they will not tolerate criticism of what they themselves have constructed.

The Politics of Transparency

According to the ideology of transparency, good governance follows full transparency. But upon examining political objectives in modern history, one is forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that Adolf Hitler was one of the most transparent politicians of the twentieth century. His Mein Kampf (1925) is repugnant in its resentment and hatred; yet Hitler never hid his anti-Semitism, his need for vengeance, or his desire for Lebensraum in the East (in other words, for invading other countries). In her penetrating analysis of the origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt maintained: “the propaganda of totalitarian movements… is invariably as frank as it is mendacious.” She argues that totalitarian leaders “usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.401, 1951). Indeed, as Arendt argues, the totalitarian dictators of the 20th century never made a secret of their own goals (racial warfare, or class warfare; destruction of international Jewry, or destruction of the bourgeoisie), and therefore they had no ultimate secret that they had to safeguard (p.494).

By contrast, our current demand for transparency in the public domain is usually an attempt to call our leaders to account. However, the attempt to make everything visible and allow no secrets holds the danger of politics descending into a type of ‘show and tell’ performance. Transparency politics ignores the complexity of issues, and instead attempts to expose or unmask politicians and other leaders, and turn them into the subjects of scandal, whether that means examining their expense accounts, digging for their offshore bank accounts, or trolling through digital documentation to find remarks or images that could be construed as sexist, racist, -phobic, or anti-Semitic. As Slavoj Žižek argues, a well-meaning goal has contributed to the erosion, not of the private domain, but of the public domain: “The public domain is fast disappearing and we treat it as a private domain” (Demanding the Impossible, p.39, 2004). When the private inserts itself into the public space – when we perform in public what was normally reserved for the private – we enter the world of pornography. Han argues that the pornification of politics has become the norm because everything is considered a potential item of exposure, exhibition, and ‘handing over to hypervisibility’ (The Transparency Society, p.24, 2012).

A significant problem arises when the politics of transparency rewards men who behave badly. Žižek sees this as a key factor in the success of populist leaders, and sees this trend beginning with Ronald Reagan. Here was a president who, the “more he was caught making stupid mistakes, the more popular he became” (Demanding the Impossible, p.40). Since then, the USA has had a president who had sex with an intern and publically lied about it on oath (Clinton), and a presidential candidate caught on tape suggesting that his approach to beautiful women was to ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ (Trump). Clinton was not made to legally suffer for his indiscretions, while Trump went on to win the election. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi understood and mastered this paradox. He evaded paying taxes and organized parties with highly-paid prostitutes, but this never dented his popularity; to his supporters it simply showed that “he is like an average Italian” (Demanding the Impossible, p.40). In an age that rewards men for behaving badly, it’s one more example of how the politics of transparency has contributed to the general crisis in liberal democracies.

Damselfly Patterns
Damselfly Patterns Paul Gregory

Seeing Through

In the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, windows of stained-glass allowed the vibrant rays of the sun to pour through, illuminating the worshippers with Biblical stories. Today we prefer our windows to be transparent. We work in glass towers, inside glass cubes, in open plan offices, where everyone can mind everyone else’s business. The glass cube permits no dark corners, no secret spaces, no escape from the panoptic gaze.

Allow me a slight digression. When I was a university student, I had a next-door neighbour who, for whatever reason, doted on me slightly. Once, after an exhausting day at the university library, I fell into an armchair, my feet on the wooden crate that served as a table, a cold beer in one hand. Suddenly I leaped to my feet and, tripping over the startled cat, I approached the window in astonishment. My doting neighbour innocently asked “What’s wrong Paul?”

I answered: “They’ve somehow cleaned the façades of all the buildings across the road!”

“You’re joking,” my neighbour said. I wasn’t. In a mildly disbelieving tone she told me: “Paul, I washed your windows while you were at the library today.”

Retelling this embarrassing episode serves a purpose. The point is that windows, when left unwashed for any length of time, have reduced transparency. In my student flat, the usual act of looking through my window was to see through a glass darkly (to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul). On that particular spring day, however, the glass had been cleaned, and for the first time I could see through it clearly. In other words, the glass itself had become so transparent that it itself had become invisible. The window itself was, in effect, hidden.

My point is that as it turns out, total transparency is the best manner of being hidden. Transparency is not hypervisiblity, it is invisibility. Transparency hides the deepest of all secrets. German philosopher Thomas Metzinger described this paradoxical nature of transparency as “a special form of darkness” (Being No One, p.169, 2001).

Invisibility is the best form of being hidden. In his Republic, Plato relates the story of the magical Ring of Gyges, which gifts the wearer invisibility. Plato reckoned that a just man is one whose actions will not change even when he becomes invisible. However, in Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Niebelungen, the ring bestowing invisibility proves too tempting for its wearers. If you reach the finale of this sixteen-hour-long saga, you will know it does not end well. And in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a ring that provides invisibility is enough to turn the head of even the most pleasant hobbit. The lesson is that a level of transparency that gives complete invisibility offers a level of temptation that would crush the morals of most mortals.

When we call for transparency, ironically, in some senses we are calling for maximum hiddenness. It is no wonder that big accountancy firms and their clients like transparency! It’s this transparency that we bestow upon Big Tech. Han argues that the paradoxical nature of tech transparency can be symbolised by Apple’s iconic flagship store in New York – a glass cube, with the actual shop hidden below ground level (Capitalism and the Death Drive, p.21, 2021). Above the ground, the glass cube is hypervisible; the world of commercial exchange is hidden below the ground – just like the Digital Panopticon, where the users are hypervisible, but the watchers remain hidden in a special form of darkness. Transparency bestows both a ghostly presence and an absence.

The Opacity of the Other

The Caribbean postcolonial poet and philosopher Edward Glissant argued that the basis of the Western understanding of the Other was actually a ‘requirement for transparency’ (Poetics of Relation, p.190, 1997). Admitting that some Westerners were happy to accept differences, he made the point that the West’s acceptance of differences nevertheless generally entailed that the Other still needed to be made transparent by being reduced and measured to some Western scale and contrasted with some Western norm. He viewed this imperative for transparency as a form of colonial grasping and appropriation. Consequently, he argued “for the right to opacity for everyone” (p.194). Glissant claims that the call for transparency of understanding needs to be resisted and that opacity needs to be protected. One who is radically different from the norm has a right to presence without explanation.

If we fail to accept the opaque, then ultimately we will fail to accept the Other: we fail to value what Byung-Chul Han calls the strange, wondrous otherness of the Other (The Expulsion of the Other, p.60, 2016). When we move beyond the narcissistic demand for the Other’s difference to be reduced to a transparency that conforms to our own norm, we will realise that we do not need to fully understand the Other in order to respect and even love them.

Glissant further argues that parts of ourselves should remain obscure even to ourselves, and we should cease picking ourselves apart in order to grasp our motivations. We sanitize our interiority and kill our creativity that way.

Wonder begins with a sense of the mysterious. Nurturing and retaining a child-like sense of wonder while respecting the mystery of the Other is at the root of a creative life. In a transparent society, where the opaque is looked on with suspicion – where secrecy is frowned upon and privacy is scorned – all the potential for wonder is killed. Which brings us back to Carly Simon and her melodic invocation that she did not want to know all the secrets of her partner. I think that she would agree that if we love the Other we must respect their opacity. This means accepting their right to privacy, and so the existence of secrecy. We need to see through transparency and embrace the mystery of the Other.

© Paul Doolan 2023

Paul Doolan teaches philosophy at Zurich International School and is the author of Collective Memory and the Dutch East Indies: Unremembering Decolonization (Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2021).

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