Friday, July 11, 2008

On Transparency

Transparency has become an issue for those who care about visibility, which in the open software movement has translated into wanting to be able to see the raw code by which programs function and among those who participate in social networks has manifested itself as an overriding concern about seeing exactly how people are connected and viewing their most private social ties.

Of course, there are many who say that we are presented with too much information in our contemporary digital lives. A recent New York Times story, "Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast," describes how corporations concerned about productivity are trying to create devices that provide more screens and filters to protect their employees from the barrage of data that they face on a daily basis. For example, Intel's concern with this issue is expressed on their official blog with tags such as "infoglut," "infomania," and "information overload" and approaches to practices of redesign and self-government that even include old school coaching.

However, in The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Deguid have argued that much of this anxiety about so-called information overload is actually rhetoric that is designed to promote corporate agendas and to limit consumer choice. (See Julia Lupton's recent review of the book's applicability to everyday users and designers here.)

The issue might really be more about information representation rather than information screening, so that users who wish for more context and content can reach it with a mouse click or two at their discretion. In the case of a program like Photoshop, savvy users can examine a PSD file and see the entire history of a document's creation. For example, the image on the left has six layers; the spotlight, table, and reflection are all computer-generated. The image on the right has twenty-five layers and uses many techniques of digital collage. Access to these kinds of electronic files can be invaluable to those who are interested in what has been called "media archeology" so that scholars can analyze how digital artifacts produced by teams of people come into existence and represent the final product of competing discourses and material constraints.

On the other hand, as social network sites make it possible to see more of the links that connect people together and gather more information about an individual's social capital, which danah boyd and others have argued is by definition part of their function in that they make visible far more than was ever possible before, I think there is an issue about the consequences of transparency that has yet to be considered. John Rawls argued that we can make the best kinds of ethical decisions by imagining ourselves in the "original position" in which knowledge about our relative position of privilege is obscured so that we would hypothetically make choices through this thought experiment that would be fair no matter what our rank in the social, cultural, and economic hierarchy. If we are able to see so many connections, rules, and rankings from the outset, will we have the same incentive to treat our neighbors ethically?

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