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Transparency is the New Objectivity

This is a guest post from David Weinberger, originally published at JOHO.

Transparency is the New Objectivity

by David Weinberger

picture-34A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is, well, epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.

6 Responses to “Transparency is the New Objectivity”

  1. [...] Transparency is the New Objectivity (Conversation Hub) [...]

  2. I am really loving this post and the whole concept. And I am really looking forward to even more people grokking its meaning.

    I’ve heard several people say they believed what Bush said, because he was the President. Who could have better credentials? And yet without transparency what do we know of the truth? A few months ago a friend said she’d couldn’t condemn torture by our government because “those people know what they’re doing and if they have to use torture it’s because it’s necessary”. We can’t move fast enough away from believing in status to believing in research. It’s transformational to have, suddenly, a network of people holding authorities, journalists, reporters, newscasters, and bloggers accountable.

    Another hugely strong reason for transparency as a trust mechanism is that data that means one thing to one person means something completely different to another. As a case in point, read Glenn Greenwald’s article in Salon about the conversation between CEOs at GE (owners of NBC) and Fox to reduce the animosity between NBC’s Keith Olberman and Bill O’Reilly —

    What the New York Times and countless other news outlets reported as a “truce” or “making peace” (isn’t this what everyone wants right now?), “growing up” and “civility”, Greenwald labels an egregious example of corporate-controlled journalism. He notes that Immelt was essentially blackmailed with personal attacks and exposure of corporate acts GE would rather keep under wraps, until GE capitulated.

    Perspective means so much, and the same facts can look different when treated differently. That’s one reason it’s so important for the facts to be exposed – so people with a different perspective can point something out that might have otherwise been totally missed by the “experts”.

  3. Brian Harris says:

    It sounds a little like an argument for editorial services.

    What would transparency for Glenn Greenwald (or any blogger) look like? He gets paid by, OK. People make their assumptions about that fact. These assumptions fall into 2 broad categories, it is either a liberal rag or a voice of reason in the wilderness. These assumptions are based on whether one agrees or not with the conclusions reached in salon’s articles. Is it a step further if Mr. Greenwald has a link on his site where he attempts to explain his motivation (the Constitution is the best thing ever!), his biases, his formative experiences?

    Is it possible or desirable to attempt to quantify those things that cause us to trust someone, but not someone else? Will “reputation broker” be on the next list of “10 Growing Career Fields?” I think to some extent that’s what editors will become; reputation brokers.

    Reputation brokers can do the due diligence on bloggers. I know that no matter what the source, after a while any blog or magazine falls into predictable patterns. So for people looking for fresh perspectives, reputation brokers might help with steering towards other, yet equally trusted sources of news, policy and opinion.

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  6. Matt says:

    I would suggest that this formulation is fundamentally confused. Objectivity and transparency are not alternatives. They are complementary but different concepts.

    First, objectivity is not merely the lack of obvious bias. It also entails the commitments to a) seek out all relevant facts on a topic; b) examine the veracity of the sources and the fitness of the methods used to ascertain these facts; c) consider these facts as the ultimate arbiter of whether an interpretation is valid or not and d) be willing to modify interpretations in the light of new evidence. Objectivity is an ideal and a set of guidelines for practice. I suppose that gives it a kind of authority, but an appeal *to* authority is not objective at all.

    Without delving too far into what transparency is, clearly it isn’t an alternative to objectivity. In many respects it is inferior. It is not hard to imagine a news program that reproduces in great detail an investigation, but which is framed around an ideology that conceals the relevance of other facts. In other respects it is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for objectivity; for example, as a basis for reproducing an experiment or reconstructing another author’s interpretation of a text. The refuge of a charlatan in our time is more often to hide behind his “transparency” than behind his “objectivity.” In every case such a fellow relies — and maybe this is related to your point? — on people’s confusing transparency with objectivity (and by extension, getting a distorted view of the relationship between particulars and generalities).

    All objective statements are transparent, in the sense that whether or not they come with footnotes attached, they could be verified and confirmed or disconfirmed with a little investigation. Transparent statements can be objective, or not; the concept of transparency alone doesn’t give us the tools to know this. Your allusion to transparency as a “trust mechanism” would tell us as much. Objectivity is a quality of trustworthiness; transparency a means to that end.