by Julius WiedemannSep 22, 2020
We live in the world of increasing transparency. Compliance, if you will, for the sake of a more procedural definition. Not that it is perfect, and that information runs freely everywhere. And also, not that we enjoy it at every moment, but we are always demanding to know more of how things work, and the mechanics of every process we create. Digital makes this urge inevitable. The reason for that is, most probably, because technologies have grown in variety and complexity, but we still feel the need to understand what lies beneath the surface, and our intuitions have failed us so many times that we need openness to feel safe. The translation of this simple idea, transparency, which has been empowered by the possibilities of new technologies, could be described by a race into a world that needs to hide less. Values such as cooperation cannot endure if the flow of information is dominated by only one side. From comments on a post, stars on a book review, likes on images, and the hundreds of disclaimers we sign up every year, we also have applied it to open offices for more communication, open kitchens, glassed walled buildings, translucid design, and others. Architecture, both inside and outside have been incredibly influenced in this matter. The combination of glass and metal has become a frequent feature on urban landscapes, but also transparent products, such as the bagless vacuum cleaner from Dyson, transparent watches and electronics, and countless others. Seeing through has become not only an option, it has been incorporated as a value.
The first uses of glass have been found to date from about 3500 BC, in Eastern Mesopotamia and Egypt, with the glassblowing technology coming much later, around the first century BC. Plastic, which means in Greek (plastikos) "capable of being shaped or moulded” came to reality pretty much as we know today in 1907 through Belgium-born Leo Hendrik Baekeland. But glass and plastic here are mostly metaphors to communicate how a value can be translated into actual designs. The first iMac G3, with its range of five colours, and translucid backpiece, was one of Jonathan Ivy’s first bestsellers. But before him, Ross Lovegrove and Karim Rashid had already started designing products.
Transparent architecture has been mastered by many architects but has started early in the 40s by Richard Neutra and his contemporaries. It was not a revolution of materials, it was one of language, and how the inside interacts with the outside, and vice-versa. The key to these revolutionary designers seems to have been to express the flourishing of a new era, where information and its flow is supposed to be an intrinsic feature of our social construct. Mother Teresa was quoted for saying that “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway”. All this technological apparatus makes us feel exactly vulnerable, and transparency is the only answer to a more honest relationship with the world.
The age of data isn’t that simple, and curiously, technology companies often try to impede the release of their real access to information, as they might reveal too much of what they take from us. And slowly but surely, they are obliged to comply with our demands for more transparency. The former CEO of DELL, Carly Fiorina, once said that “we need more transparency and accountability in government so that people know how their money is being spent. That means putting budgets online, putting legislation online”. We are now requiring companies to do the same, and have legislation requiring them to offer their customers an honest relationship. Transparency International was founded in 1993 in Berlin to combat corruption and prevent crime, in an effort to generate comprehensive research and policies on tough topics. It has become a movement for a better understanding of how this world works.
Together with a revolution of materials, we have endeavoured in a new journey. Electronics are now part of what we are. Our houses and offices, the objects we own and use and the society we necessarily need to navigate through need to represent those values. Maybe love and curiosity would suffice to cope with the insecurities of our existence, but intellectual honesty is the ultimate guardian of that. On a last quote, the Dalai Lama also commented that “a lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity”. It seems a reasonable claim, that in an age of such speedy transformation, it has become one of the most important values to build confidence that we can trust what lies beneath, and when lies ahead.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.