Every human institution, from marriage to the army to the government to the courts to corporations and banks, religions, every system of civilisation is now in jeopardy because of this new transparency. So spake Professor Daniel Dennett over Lunch With the FT in an article that appeared in the 4/5 March 2017 edition. He was criticising the blinding light of transparency from digital technologies that’s permeating institutions, producing a world where it’s near-impossible to keep secrets.
I’ve also been reading John Nickson’s latest book Our Common Good, which looks in detail at the erosion of trust in institutions and what’s often referred to as the establishment: the media; the police; our MPs; car manufacturers, banks and other businesses; sporting bodies; the Catholic Church; care and other social services … the list goes on. But one of the points made in Our Common Good is that the level of trust in institutions is unequal and there’s a correlation with inequality of income. Put bluntly, the so-called elite (or more informed) public is more likely to trust government, business, the media and other organisations to do what’s right than the majority of the population.
Where problems have been concealed, a blinding light of transparency – and truth – can help to put the record straight. But it’s hardly surprising that a stream of disclosures breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust and feeds alternatives to the establishment.
But Professor Dennett’s concerns appear to be wider. He argues for institutions to have “membranes” that allow them to retain some privacy and control over their information. I think he’s saying that the transparency pendulum has swung too far, too quickly, and we need both time to adjust and the opportunity to dial back to a moderated position.
My concern is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and, even if it could be put back, it might not be wise for that to be done. If it’s accepted that levels of trust are generally low, establishing a wall of privacy around institutions that are perceived as bearing some of the responsibility for that lack of trust doesn’t seem to be the best approach.
I’ll post next week on other points from Our Common Good that suggest ways forward, but our approach needs to pull society together, not drive us further apart, no matter how much we might want to turn back the clock.