We are all entangled in transparency
Transparency is the holy cow of our times, not just of the internet. It is the keyword that may decide presidential elections; it is the word of solace and trust in case of a crisis and scandals. Transparency is not just idealism, but can be considered an ideology that hasn’t faced much productive criticism or reflection yet. In order to shed light on the dark side of transparency the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han offers crucially valuable thoughts through expressing Otherness. Han is an antidote in the achievement-oriented society. He is one of the “star pessimists” in the German landscape of intellectuals known as the philosopher who insists on expressing facts that seem like doom mongering for others.[i]
Productivity today is built on fast communication and transparent communication is the main ingredient
In practice, what Byung-Chul Han witnesses in transparency is a violent force that is inherent in all societal processes of the neoliberal system.[ii] After Han, transparency is about to dismantle all interiority to constantly enhance productivity. Today, communication needs to be as transparent and accelerated as possible, because just a translucent, fast communication can guarantee a steady productivity. This is the systemic behaviour and logic of the phenomenon Han criticizes heavily.[iii]
In his book “Transparent Society” he shows that transparency and trust are antagonists instead of the commonly presumed respectful, loving partners: “It is the main characteristic of trust that no evidence is needed. If you know anything about the other, trust becomes superfluous. Transparency disestablishes trust.”[iv]
Transparency as a lubricant: from open source to open politics
By declaring his government to be the most transparent in US history, Barack Obama aspired with his “Open Government Initiative” also after a transparent, trustful and collaborative society.[v] The way his declaration equated openness with efficiency and effectiveness is a common and easily accepted argumentation in our society.[vi] But there is also a pseudo-logic behind the concept that is pushed by the neoliberal system that profits from people’s transparent life and their participation.
A transparent society is a positive society without negativity
The paper “From open source to open government” by Prof. Nathaniel Tkacz sketches how transparency today touches the very roots of our political and societal systems that are more and more reconfigured on the base technological systems run. Processes that are operational, predictable, controllable are processes defined as positive. The intended process language is formal, automatic, clear.[vii]
So is the open-source culture foremost known to be a positive system. It fosters competition, freedom, productivity, collaboration and participation, as Jonathan Rosenberg, former Senior Vice President of Products at Google, unambiguously summarizes the infrastructure of openness we live in.[viii]
This positivity that is daily promoted to us, is an appreciated strategy of a positive society that is lacking more than ever secrets, individuality, thresholds, differences, otherness, slowness, but also trust.[ix] These deeply humane virtues are considered attributes that disturb, prevent fast communication because they are creating a distance towards the other. “A like triggers a connecting communication way more easily than a dislike. This negativity that is inherent in every denial does not just create disturbance but is also economically a bad seller.”[x]
Negativity and truths vs. positive undirected information masses
Han also shows how transparency and truth differ in terms of negativity and positivity: the negativity of truths is formed by the fact that if A is proved to be true, B for example is then proved to be wrong. A prevails B. On the other side we have accumulated information that doesn’t automatically represent truths. Lots of information is without a direction, a meaning. Information-based data masses lack the negativity of something true. As a consequence this positivity is rampantly growing into a holistic vagueness.[xi]
Growing vagueness calls for surveillance that creates a pornographic society
What we are daily well-fed on are public discussion led by or at mostly concerning the heads of our states questioning mutually their competence if bits of their lives are not accessible to everyone. Starting with Clinton’s email episode, Trump’s unpublished tax and income records through to the dubious sources used in dissertations of German politicians. This is today all considered common property that we can and should survey and question anytime. One could argue that politicians, actors, athletes and others are representatives of the public sphere and this sphere is supposed to be as translucent as possible to remain democratic. However, today, we don’t stop here: as we are technologically educated in making the world translucent, we also question any information of anyone in the radius of the world wide web and beyond.
Especially a democratic society is in need of rooms that are not translucent. Transparency exists solely in dictatorships because total transparency is just realizable by total control.[xii] The question is if we challenge sufficiently the quality of the information that is given to us or if we are satisfied with the services that decide for us after making ourselves transparent to the system?
All these pseudo comfortable dimensions of transparency that we are meanwhile so used to are in Han’s eyes not just dangerous, but also extremely irrational. What digital media lacks is a mediator who slows down, disturbs, directs, and intervenes. For Han it is absurd that technology and mediation is not considered a valuable pair, but even worse, the opposite is the case: the majority of the society equates a digital mediator with “non-transparency and inefficiency”.[xiii]
What we instead need is to establish a “politics of distance” that allows us to think silently, to differ between each other and be reluctant. Rooms that offer us to opt out, fall silent, keep things to ourselves, not deliver, not connect, not compare. Han believes that our interiority is in great danger and our society on a successful way of turning into a scandal-society. There, attention is directed solely to the outside, comforted by masses of equally noisy, instant information. It is a pornographic life.[xiv]
Image via Flickr
[ii] Han, B.C., 2012. Transparenzgesellschaft, Matthes und Seitz, Berlin.
[x] Han, B.C., 2012. Transparenzgesellschaft, Matthes und Seitz, Berlin.
[xi] Han, B.C., 2012. Transparenzgesellschaft, Matthes und Seitz, Berlin.
[xiii] Han, B.-C., 2014. Im Schwarm. Ansichten des Digitalen, Matthes und Seitz, Berlin.