‘HOW EXTREME AND RADICAL TRANSPARENCY WILL KILL PUBLIC TRUST (GOVERNMENTS AIMING TO BE TRANSPARENT THAT BECAME ABSOLUTELY INVISIBLE)’.
By Pablo Sánchez Chillón, Lawyer, International Speaker, Strategy and Public Affairs Advisor and Urban Advocate. Pablo is Co-founder of Eolexcitylab and Sánchez Chillón, Urban Innovation Advocates, Consultants & Lawyers (Spain). He is Director of Foro Global Territorio & GlobalGOV and Chief Editor of Urban 360º. This article is published with the support of GlobalGOV & Foro Global Territorio | Thanks for supporting us.
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Accountability, openness & transparency are meant to be strong pillars of contemporary (Co-) Leadership. However, extreme exposure collides with the natural role of political leaders: take decisions and cope with them. When political correctness reigns over responsability and ultra-bureaucratic accountability displaces public trust, democracies weaken, buried under tones of imposture and tactical prudence. Ok, going open is cool and beneficial to our political systems, but sadness and immobility don’t win elections. Please don’t do as those Governments looking forward to going transparent that have become absolutely invisible.
Under the 24 hours scrutiny siege-like of our days, no Mayor would keep comfortable by being compared with the “Night Mayor” James J. Walker — colloquially known as Beau James— who presided over the city of NY as Mayor in the 20th century golden 20’s; with an allegedly strong commitment with life, dandyism and the mundane pleasures, Mr. Walker become a symbol of the jazz age romanticism and personified the city’s rebellious attitude against social restriction. It was Beau James who, during his first two years in office in NY was said to have taken seven vacations totaling 143 days, not too bad for a Mayor in his first term.
Nowadays, the script looks quite different.
Globalization, the Internet revolution, the epidemic of total accountability and 360º transparency and the (at least perceived) collective empowerment of citizens are long term trends that are changing the macro context of political and organizational leadership, also on the Cities level. In the context of this new time for a choral and soft Urban Diplomacy, the global conversation and performance demand strong professional commitment for Cities and their structures, and a new kind of leadership and global skills for Mayors and their advisory teams, as successful leaders are using a more integrative and participatory manner that places greater emphasis on the soft power of attraction rather than the hard power of command.
However, 24/365 transparency gives no room for confidence, and, extreme exposition could collide with the natural role of political leaders: take decisions on behalf of citizens and cope with them.
In an essay published in 2013 in the Guardian, Jonathan Franzen claimed against what he sees as the shallow and superficiality of the new online culture. “With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”
In his acclaimed essay “The Transparency Society” (2015), Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han denounces the Imperium of Transparency and its dangerous threats to contemporary democracy. Sure, Transparency as a term or a slogan, dominates public discourse about corruption and freedom of information. Considered crucial to democracy, it touches our political and economic lives as well as our private lives. Anyone can obtain information about anything. Everything—and everyone—has become transparent: unveiled or exposed by the apparatuses that exert a kind of collective control over the post-capitalist world.
Yet, transparency has a dark side that, ironically, has everything to do with a lack of mystery, shadow, and nuance. Behind the apparent accessibility of knowledge lies the disappearance of privacy, homogenization, and the collapse of trust. As Byung-Chul Han warns, transparency whets an insatiable appetite for uncovering and disclosure, promoting a society of nakedness or shamelessness that verges on pornographic. The sense of life becomes inflected with performance and display, and this devalues intimacy. Last, but not least, the aggressive dialectic of transparency, which presumes disclosure, excludes the possibility of (democratic) trust. Trust can only occur in a society that allows for the possibility of concealment, decision making and eventual mistake.
The anxiety to accumulate ever more information does not necessarily produce more knowledge or faith. Technology creates the illusion of total containment and the constant monitoring of information, but what we lack is adequate interpretation of the information. In this essay, Byung-Chul Han denounces transparency as a false ideal, the strongest and most pernicious of our contemporary mythologies.
Byung-Chul Han ideas found a lighter precedent in Dave Eggers page turning novel “The Circle”, where Mae Holland, a woman in her early 20s, who secures a job at the vast techno-sexy social media company, the Circle, a mixed reincarnation of Facebook, Google, Twitter, PayPal and every other big online conglomerate to whom we have so far trusted our lives. Under the motto “Secrets are Lies”, “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft”, The Circle poses some relevant issues regarding democracy and contemporary hyper-sociability under our eyes.
The novel tracks her own integration into the day by day and dense philosophy of the Circle, gradually illuminating a deeply disconcerting vision of how real life might soon be chased into hiding by the tyranny of total techno-intrusion and complete real-time transparency. The techno paradise become an Inferno, instead. Mae, herself, ends up suggesting that an account (controlled by) with The Circle should be made mandatory by the government, this being the most effective way to increase vote turnouts. The novel evokes some perturbing ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy and their leaders, who are forced to be under a full 24/365 scrutiny of their voters.
Meanwhile, the Circle continues to develop a range of sophisticated technologies, including SeeChange: light, portable cameras that can provide real-time video with minimal efforts. Eventually, SeeChange cameras are worn all day long by politicians wishing to be ‘transparent’, allowing the public to see what they are seeing at all times.The dystopia of the Circle should sound familiar, as many of the issues suggested in the novel are well known and quite disturbing nowadays: the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves, the voracious information appetites of Google and Facebook, our lives under the constant surveillance and the relationship between government, transparency and Leadership.
Last but not least, some days ago, Jack Shepherd wrote in The Independent about the world as a bizarre place right now, where the mix of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Pokémon Go, is driving many people to comparing real life to the terrifying show Black Mirror. The perturbing Black Mirror TV series by Charlie Brooker explore the dark side of modern technology while posing valuable interrogation about the inevitable future lifestyle that the technology driven society we live is creating around ourselves (For Londoners looking to escape the trappings of the real world, you can now enter an episode of Charlie Brooker’s fictional series . The Barbican Centre will host a new sci-fi exhibition this June titled Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction, offering an ‘immersive’ entrance to the exhibition).
So, are the Leaders of our 21st century supposed to be full and completely transparent for the shake of democracy? Have we, the audience/electors the right (and attention) to know and track the forge of any single decision taken by our politicians?
How this life under real-time surveillance and extreme exposition will affect the essence of democracy and delegation of power?
Are we giving birth to a contemporary and dull specimen of democracy where elected leaders are subjugated by the tyranny of transparency, accountability and extreme control where nobody dares to decide (and do eventually wrong) because of the social impact and immediate repercussion of political decision making?
If the natural role of political leaders is to take decisions (to be yet endorsed by citizens and voters), would extreme exposition collide with it?
Maybe there are Governments so transparent that they have become absolutely invisible.
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