The Coming Decade of Radical Transparency

Photo: Otto Pyykko

It is customary at this time of year to look back and reflect on the year that was. But this year is different. Not only was it the end of the first decade of the new Millennium, but it represents the full point at the end of a decade whose crie de coeur must be radical transparency. This palpable demand for unprecedented disclosure is destined to transform government, business and our own lives as social networks, marketers and hackers pierce ever deeper into our professional and personal lives and make that information publicly available.

We can no more stop this than we can turn back the internet. Nor will it ever go away. As Aaron Sorkin aptly wrote in The Social Network movie, “The Internet’s not written in pencil…it’s written in ink.” As such we must educate and adjust our personal and professional practices appropriate to the reality of the world we now live in.

Radical transparency has an enormous impact on our personal lives. We can no longer share thoughts, quips, photos or personal opinions anywhere on the web without being mindful that they may turn up where we least expect it (notably job interviews, divorce proceedings or public media). Facebook privacy debates brought this issue to a head in 2009-10 but the argument was largely framed in terms of the rights of social networking companies. Only now is it apparent that these very private issues are part of a much larger public concern that includes our professional, parental and personal practices.

The challenges for CEOs, business and government are equally daunting. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter consumers are now in direct dialogue with brands and are quick to voice their support and scorn whether it’s towards a new school brand like Facebook or old school brand like BP.

This demand for transparency is intensified  by  the corporate greed of Wall Street and lingering effects of Ponzi schemes like the one led by Bernie Madoff, both of which have left consumers deeply distrustful of corporations and calling for greater transparency.

Finally, the Wikileak and cyberattack sensations are both a literal demonstration of the demand for radical transparency, and a dramatic demonstration of the ability of the web to force the issue. Dubbed the ‘first global cyber war’ by the The Guardian, in which “hactivists…take to cyber battlefields”, this issue has only just begun to play out and is likely the redistribute the power balance between the on- and offline worlds, between corporate and consumer America, and between governments and their citizens.

There is no simple answer to this issue. To simply champion the “antiseptic of sunlight” is to ignore the delicate balancing of interests that must occur to practice government, business and our personal lives in ways that reflect the multiple hats we each wear in life including elected official, states-person, CEO, shareholder, stakeholder and citizen. Any solution is further complicated by the tension between countries serving their own national interests while also participating as members of the global community. This tension is heightened by several factors including demographics, population, skilled and educated labor, relative economic growth rates and myriad other factors that impact how countries and companies are jockeying for power and profit while also being challenged to be more transparent.

As impossible as a fully transparency seems, it is clear that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Non-disclosure in the Internet Age is quickly perceived as a breach of trust. Government, corporations and each of us as individuals must recalibrate how we live and share our lives appropriate to the information now available and the expectations of others.

Like ever period of significant transition, there will be push-back and obstruction. The next decade is destined to play out the complexity of this issue but judging by the harm done by many of the decisions taken behind the curtain of non-disclosure, more transparency will be a good thing especially if it leads to greater corporate accountability, a better life for more people, and wiser treatment of the planet.

Do you think full transparency is a good thing? Or is that expectation naive and unrealistic?