Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Transparency Wearing Thin?

The Obama Administration is missing an excellent tie-in to the health care debate around the issue of airport scanners.

Instead of just looking for weapons or explosives under our clothes, why not scan for cancer or osteoporosis? People would flock to the airport for regular check ups, freeing up hospital waiting rooms for good old fashioned gunshot victims.

Airlines could fill prescriptions right in flight. Along with the $5 headphones, passengers could purchase backless gowns, very comfortable, and extremely practical when dealing with more aggressive security procedures.

I recently heard someone say, without irony, that "there ought to be a law limiting big government."

It seems like we, the public, want our proverbial cake and we want to eat it, too.

It's as if technology has brought us to a golden age of interactive everything. Pushocracy (push button, remote control democracy) is just around the corner. We'll be able to vote on every line item of a budget bill while we drive to work. We will be the government, an iMob of virtual patriots.

Meanwhile we expect a high level of what has come to be known as "transparency" from our governments, our employers, our bankers, our celebrities, and thanks to web cams and Skyping, one another.

This idea of transparency not only seems to have been driven by technology, but it is currently embodied by the discussions about full body airport scanners that can see through our clothes. Now that is literally mandating transparency.

As technology has pushed everything into overdrive, our tolerance for waiting, for not knowing, for inaction has plummeted. We want it now. As long as we don't have to do anything.

This is the cake conundrum. I notice more and more that we expect to keep tabs on what "the man" is up to, sort of a quid pro quo for Big Brother government wanting to keep tabs on us via airport screening and citywide video cameras and marketing databases.

We show you ours, so let's see yours.

The problem is that what we see isn't necessarily of any significance. Even if it was significant, what we really do about it, anyway? Tweet?

The folks demanding transparency may inadvertently be fostering a larger bureaucratic monster who always keeps one hand waving at us while the other hand slices the throats of good ideas. By simply demanding "transparency", we are really demanding a peek at the inner workings of power. Just seeing the inner workings of power, however, doesn't transfer any power to us simply for having seen it, any more than watching a storm on radar will keep it from raining.

Yes, I know that the radar analogy could also be turned to suggest that by seeing the storm coming, we can prepare ourselves with umbrellas and rain boots, but that's not what the iMob wants. We want someone to keep it from raining, as infantile and illogical as that is, it is what we want. Our desire for transparency isn't motivated by any bold underpinning, that if we are discontent we would go so far as to do something about it.

Heavens, no.

We want a more passive relationship with our masters. Yes, we want to keep an eye on those rascals, but from a safe distance, generally measured by terabytes. We want to feel like we control them, because as long as they stay in the confines of our Blackberry and iPhone screens, they are diminutive and less threatening.

For my money, "transparency" is simply the new "shallow".

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