Transparency: Demands for Disclosure in the Political Domain

Transparency isn't a new word. It's a new concept. How do the general public, tech giants, and the government see it--or through it?

Transparency isn’t a new word. It’s a new concept. How do the general public, tech giants, and the government see it–or through it?

Transparency, n. [trans·par·en·cy, ˌtranˈsperənsē].

Traditionally meaning allowing light to pass through, or allowing objects to be distinctly seen through, transparency isn’t a new word, not by a long shot. Unless you consider late 16th century Medieval Latin relatively new. But this word has been gaining momentum, galloping through the English language into a place of prominence in public discourse.

Yet transparency also isn’t simply a faddish buzzword. As an abstract noun, transparency has become the glass jar in our modern lexicon to catch all kinds of other words, buzzing about like fireflies. Disclosure, secrecy, data collection, security, public scrutiny, and surveillance are just a few of the brightest lights in the transparency corpus of meaning.

As such, transparency has become a one-word embodiment of an entire political ideology, a kind of multi-dimensional demand that is suddenly on the tongues, blogs, and tweets of millions of Americans.

Nova Spivack gives reasons for why that might be. The Information Age has birthed something that we were perhaps not ready for: “We are now entering the Age of Transparency,” he asserts.

It’s not surprising that the usage of transparency has skyrocketed in the past ten years, for the more that information has become available to the public through media, technology, and other recently advanced forms of communications, the more Americans have desired that all forms of information become available to the public. Big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and LinkedIn are releasing so-called transparency reports about requests made by the U.S. National Security Agency for information about users; #transparency on Twitter is wrought with frustrated analyses of certain groups’ withholding of information or confidentiality policies.

The government is not excluded from these scrutinizing demands. In fact, the government has been thrust under the magnifying glass of public scrutiny all facilitated through the arguments from that single word, transparency. To Spivack, transparency is the phenomenon that occurs when it becomes increasingly hard for everyone to keep secrets, from the average Gmail account holder to the entire American government. Thus, he argues that “instead of trying to hide secrets, we should focus our attention on how to share them. Share more instead of less, yet do it more responsibly.”

The fact that the usage of transparency has only increased recently is evidence that, in the eyes of the general public, the government has perhaps not shared all of its secrets, and has most certainly not shared them responsibly.

Look, for example, at the jump from 2013 to 2014 in the amount of articles mentioning the word “transparency” published by the New York Times. Currently, the percentage stands at 1.03 of all NYT articles so far this year. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s crystal-clear that this jump is due to backlash after the Edward Snowden whistle-blowing events, exposing the extent to which the National Security Agency has secretly collected, dragnet style, information from the communications of the general public.

chartBut note also the concurrent jump in disclosure, similar to current applications of transparency in that a push for disclosure demands making new or secret information known. In this sense, the two words are used in a conjunctive manner, as seen in this NYT article: “Edward Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures of secret mass surveillance programs have forever changed the public discussion about the relationship between national security and the protection of privacy and civil liberties.” In other words, disclosures influence the public discussion about transparency, and transparency demands disclosures of secret information.

Interestingly, disclosure usage also peaked in 1973 surrounding—you guessed it—the Watergate scandals. The idea put forth in transparency isn’t new. But transparency has only made a new-usage debut in recent years because it does encompass the environment in which the new surge of controversial disclosure has emerged. Average Americans have more direct access to governmental information than ever (remember in 2012 when President Obama was just a click away to answering your questions on a Reddit session of Ask Me Anything?).

Thus, to proponents of the transparency movement, it seems that much more offensive that the government is gathering information about us in secret. Whenever someone uses the word transparency in critiquing the government, they argue that the NSA has cheated: the NSA took advantage of transparency, without being transparent themselves.

But now, as the 2014 midterm elections draw close, the government itself–in the form of those campaigning for or those in the House and Senate—is harnessing the single-word power of the transparency phenomenon. Political analysts have argued that another form of transparency, financial transparency, will restore trust between voters and campaigners. “Campaigning on financial transparency will win elections,” writes David Rehr, citing the George Washington University Battleground Poll of March that demonstrates that 66% of the sample responded they would be strongly more likely to support a candidate who was committed to providing financial transparency for government spending.

And if the USA Freedom Act passes in the Senate, including the newly elected senators in the short session after elections in November, then the NSA will be severely limited in its continued use of dragnet data surveillance.

The midterm elections are abuzz with transparency, and will add unique and new dimensions to the perception of transparency in American society. Will transparency continue to climb in usage, a hot-button topic wrought with frustration, outrage, and demands? Or will transparency eventually fall out of usage by becoming the norm, so integral to methodology of governmental information operations that we notice it no more than we would notice the clear glass of a window pane? The midterm elections is the next body of discourse that will either nudge the high-level usage of the word even higher as we continue into the 21st century, or normalize it back to pre-hashtag levels. Regardless of what happens in the coming months, or even years, the meaning of transparency has been definitively altered. And who’s to say, in our word-generative era, that it won’t change again?


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