This post has been a little while in the writing (been busy with job search activities, as well as behind the scenes work on PodCamp Toronto 2010, where I’m on the organizing committee, looking after the finances) – last week I followed a link that I saw tweeted by Chris Brogan to a blog post written by Jon Udell titled Contextual clothing for naked transparency. The blog post was in turn inspired by an interview with Lawrence Lessig that Udell heard on the CBC Radio show Spark*. The host of Spark, Nora Young, was interviewing Lessig about his essay Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government in The New Republic.
The essence of Udell’s post was that “naked transparency” did not necessarily result in positive results, and he argues that context around the information revealed about people in the name of transparency is essential for providing the proper perspective. Udell quotes from Lessig’s essay, where he argued that the lack of critical thought about what makes transparency work in a positive way will lead to very negative outcomes – inspiring only disgust and not the change and reform that those championing transparency hope so fervently for.
And that got me thinking about the basic tenet behind the book Freakonomics by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, which is that the response to an incentive is not always the one desired by those putting the incentive into place to drive a certain behaviour.
Now Levitt and Dubner apply the methods and tools of economics – statistical analysis of the behaviour of a population in response to specific stimuli or incentives – to demonstrate their thesis, and like any “pop” version of a non-mainstream subject they have perhaps over-simplified and sensationalized some of their data and conclusions (for example, see the Wikipedia article on Freakonomics which has sections on “Reappraisals” and “Refutations”).
But even allowing for that, I think it’s evident that the results of incentives are often not those that were anticipated, and I think that “naked transparency” may well be one of those cases.
It will be interesting to follow the consequences to society as increasing requirements for transparency continue to be imposed, to track both the unanticipated ways in which people or organizations will find to circumvent those requirements as well as the unexpected negative impacts on those who faithfully comply but are caught out by lack of context.
If you know of any specific examples of where the “conventional wisdom” that maximum transparency is always a good thing has been turned on its head, I’d like to hear about it – leave me a comment with the details. And I’d certainly also appreciate hearing about your thoughts on the hidden downside of naked transparency.
*I’ve mentioned Spark before and told you how awesome the show is (whether you listen to it on the radio, or the podcast as I do), but I have to apologize to Nora and the Spark crew for being a little behind in my listening – a computer meltdown last Fall threw my podcast listening completely out of whack, and I still haven’t got back on track even after nursing our PC back to health.