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Transparency Does Not Equal Understanding

July 8, 2013

While Tim is on vacation the next two weeks, we are highlighting some of his most popular posts. This article was originally published on April 16, 2012.

In last week's blog, I summarized a recent CECP meeting of CEOs that discussed their current thinking about CSR and community engagement activities. One of those findings was that consumers are demanding greater levels of transparency regarding a company's CSR than they were five years ago.

This got me thinking about transparency and the increasing role that it plays in all our lives – and a passage from William Gibson's new book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, that suggests transparency does not always equal understanding or agreement.

Here's the relevant part:

  • It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret. In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician, and corporate leader. The future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.
  • I say "truths," however, and not "truth," as the other side of information's new ubiquity can look not so much transparent as outright crazy. Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree about it more readily.

William Gibson is known for his science fiction writing, but his latest book is a series of nonfiction essays. In this particular essay, called The Road to Oceania, written for The New York Times in June 2003, Gibson was reflecting on George Orwell's dystopian work, 1984, and the similarities and differences between our contemporary lives and the future as outlined by Orwell.

In the essay, Gibson also asserts that:

  • …driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which "Orwellian" scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals lose degrees of privacy, so too do corporations and states.

So, it seems to me that the challenge for those of who manage CSR programs is to be transparent and understandable (and hopefully persuasive) at the same time. One without the other is just adding to the information stream with no real purpose or impact.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with us here. Or, follow me on Twitter @timmcclimon and comment there.

P.S. . Did you know that William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" in 1981?


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