Philosophy Colloquium
Thi Nguyen
University of Utah
Transparency is Surveillance

During her BBC Reith Lectures on Trust, Onora O’Neill offered the following argument: People think that trust and transparency go together, but in reality, they are deeply opposed. Transparency forces people to conceal their actual reasons for action, and invent new ones for public consumption. Transparency forces deception. Her argument has been strangely neglected. Here, I defend the argument, and worsen its conclusion. In many cases, the drive to accountability forces experts to explain their reasoning to non-experts. But expert reasons are, by their nature, often inaccessible to non-experts. O’Neill argues that this will lead to deception. I argue that it can also lead to something worse. Experts will often confine their actions to those for which they can offer public justification, and be incentivized to prefer those actions which can be easily justified in inexpert terms. Transparency prevents experts from deploys their full expertise. It is a form of surveillance — a bureaucratic surveillance, which surveilles justifications for actions. Such surveillance is intended to banish non-explicit, non-public reasoning. This is sometimes good, since bias and corruption thrive in the realm of the non-explicit and the hidden. But the non-explicit is also where expert skill, sensitivity, and community intimacy reside. Transparency undercuts all these things. We do need to root out bias and corruption, but we also need to trust, to let expertise and intimacy bloom. Surveillance shatters trust. Transparency is sometimes necessary, but it is not an unalloyed good. It is rough medicine, to be taken sparingly.

Friday, October 16, 2020