Over at The Long Tail and at Wired, Chris Anderson has been writing and blogging about Radical Transparency, the idea that growing recognition of the power of openness will be what marks the first decade of the 21st Century. And over on Rough Type, Nick Carr opines about Radical Opacity. For years, I’ve been talking about blogging as simply the next turn of the screw in the increasingly transparent world in which we live, and all things considered, this is a good thing. As a society, we are better off when our government is more transparent, where other institutions of power are more transparent, where corporations are more transparent. We’ve been getting more transparent for years, pretty much since Martin Luther nailed his epistle to the door. Now, it used to be the role of the media to make things transparent via investigations, lawsuits and just great reporting, but increasingly the role of making the opaque transparent has fallen to bloggers. And it’s been good. Mostly.
Of course, there is always tension. Someone or something suddenly made transparent is not always happy; governments rightly want to hold some things secret, individuals don’t want their private lives on display 24/7, corporations and businesses have a need to look after their trade secrets and plans. Somewhere, there needs to be a balance.
As a communications professional, I see this tension on a daily basis. What is the best way to balance the need to hold some things tight and disclose others fully? In what can quickly become an overheated debate, the decision to remain opaque can cause huge consternation – there is something to hide, we have a right to know, opaque = deception, information wants to be free – we’ve all seen the arguments made. And, it’s counterproductive, because it sets up a sham argument that looks at the world in a binary way – you are either transparent or opaque, one is good and the other bad.
We need to look instead at a middle way, what I call radical translucency. It’s simply the idea that an individual or company can partially disclose in a way that is helpful to all. The analogy is the shower curtain in a movie – the body is visible but not the details. J In the same way we’ve discovered that in society being totally blunt and honest all the time wins few friends (“does this outfit make me look fat” has a very limited number of right answers, for example), we need to become more comfortable with the ability to move smoothly along a continuum of opaque to transparent.