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.


Counter-factual history and fake news


Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?