Saturday, January 15, 2011

Radical Transparency

I attended a small public discussion about WikiLeaks and the benefits of transparency.  Many of the people hadn't previously given these topics much thought, but once the discussion got going they really got into the topic.  One person expressed a concern that our government might be at a disadvantage because it was so open compared to the governments in some other countries.  But the following counter argument was made.

In economics, it is generally agreed that the more information people have, the better decisions they make and the more efficiently the economy runs.  That's why there are laws requiring a certain degree of financial disclosure by all public corporations, and that's why processed food packages must contain a list of ingredients and the fat and calorie content.  More information results in a better decisions and a better running economy. 

The same thing applies to a democratic  / representative government.  The more information people have, the better they are at electing representatives or demanding that poor policies be corrected.  Our openness is not a vulnerability, but a strength.

One person objected, "Didn't WikiLeaks just publish a list of our greatest vulnerabilities to terrorism?  That surely didn't make us stronger."   Another person quickly stated that if such a list was indeed published (and we're not sure it was), the terrorist organizations almost certainly were aware of these vulnerabilities long ago.  It was only for the American public that this was new news.  This news also shed light on the fact that very little was done to increase the security in these areas since 9/11, which will hopefully generate enough public outcry for something to be done.  Openness is a strength.

There was general agreement that WikiLeaks should not be viewed as a single unique event, but an example of what will become very common from now on thanks for the ability to share information on the Internet.  This brought up the idea of Radical Transparency.   The term was originally developed to describe the idea of complete transparency on the environmental impact of products, so that people could make more informed and responsible choices about what to purchase.  This can easily be extended to the social impact of the way the products are produced and distributed, as well as to the other policies of the company producing the products.  This is being implemented in a haphazard way now as various groups attempt to spread information about operations at various companies in order to influence people's purchasing decisions.  To date it seems to have some real but limited impact on reducing some of the worst practices on environmental destruction or abusive child labor practices in foreign countries.  I can see this movement as an alternative to government regulations, one which is considerably more effective in the global economy where individual governments have limited jurisdiction.  If only it became a more organized movement...