The Seduction of Transparency


Transparency will make us all moral. Soon we will have the technical means necessary to make all the important acts in our lives traceable. Our power to spot and confront cheating and illegality of all stripes expands constantly. So our attention turns to ethical questions. Given our growing awareness that everything we do is being recorded and accessible to scrutiny, are we ready to embrace a bold new era in which corruption, vice and immorality will be progressively pushed back into the ever-shrinking hidden parts of modern societies?

This is the focus of Dave Eggers new novel The Circle. In it he imagines the immanent linkage of the many data-gathering systems in use today with the social order that is emerging to make this knowledge useful and financially profitable in the internet-saturated developed world.

We can already use computerized devices to track our heart rate or our caloric intake, and many hospital tests could be adapted to produce more continual real-time data. We can not only usefully track changes in our own health but, if deployed more broadly, we could use this mass of data to assess and improve all public health. Say a worker arrives at work infected with the flu (as marked by elevated temperature)? Send her home before the infection spreads. Already, in a similar manner, social media and product-research software lets corporations track actual (rather than imagined) consumer demand, allowing manufacturers to respond in real time.

While speaking in different tones of voice, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Julian Assange of Wikileaks each ceaselessly preaches this new gospel. The new methods of data-gathering, combined with computer-aided transparency, promise to eradicate closed-door political horse-trading and conspiratorial deal-making. Like pornography use and on-line gambling at work—all these behaviors evaporate when people know they are being watched. Whole classes of crime, such as child pornography, could simply be eliminated by greater transparency. Voting could be made more economically efficient and the turnout would be higher if done electronically; monitored, once again, by a rigorously transparent process.

Writing from the heart of California’s technology industry (near San Francisco) Eggers asks: what sort of world are we entering as our moral aspirations mature (or perhaps narrow in on) transparency as the cure for immorality and social ills—especially as the technical apparatus through which it is expressed matures? What will life be like when we “close the circle” and our lives become “transparent”—visible and traceable instantaneously and deep into the past?

This moral ideal is familiar. We hide what we are ashamed of, a lesson embedded in the biblical story when the newly fallen first couple immediately hide from the God whom they have disobeyed. When we do something illegal, or unethical, we hide it from others because we know it is wrong. But perhaps we are also selfish for hiding the beautiful things we experience, such as a luminous moonlit kayak excursion on San Francisco bay complete with a shower of shooting stars? In a spasm of the conscience that could only happen to a member of the Google-glasses generation, Egger’s main character Mae realizes, even beyond our need to hide shameful acts, our impulse to hide wonderful ones is

“…selfish, and nothing more. The same way a child doesn’t want to share his favorite toy. I understand that secrecy is part of, well, an aberrant behavior system. It comes from a bad place, not a place of light and generosity. And when you deprive your friends, or someone like your son Gunnar [a quadriplegic] of experiences like I’ve had, you’re basically stealing from them. You’re depriving them of something they have a right to. Knowledge is a basic human right. Equal access to all possible human experiences is a basic human right.”(301)

Mae expresses the emerging common sense of the wired generation: what we used to call privacy is dead, and only the dangerously selfish would object.

What is especially remarkable about Eggers’ brand of cultural analysis is the way he links this observation about the evolution of our moral landscape with a sharp-eyed awareness of recent innovations in social media and data mining. They aim, as Eggers shows, primarily at shaping consumer behavior. Our fears and desires are being harnessed to make us “want” to do (and buy) the things that those footing the bills to run these platforms intend. Social media is the next step in the evolution of corporate marketing.

Eggers’s view of the dynamics of the social order that is growing up in contemporary social media, in tandem with information feedback mechanisms, develops a line of thought popularized by Michel Foucault. His notion of “infra law” named developments in the techniques of western governance which aimed to make it easier for governments to subtly guide the behavior of citizens in directions that seemed socially beneficial. From time immemorial, Foucault observes, governments could only keep the unruly members of populations in line if regularly displaying their power to punish through public spectacles. Those engaging in behavior proscribed by the sovereign risked visible, and often gruesome, shaming (put in the stocks), maiming (branded) or execution (beheading, and so on).

But such a wasteful form of social control was doomed when the means of production shifted in the transition from the feudal to the industrial age. The rise of modern manufacturing techniques demanded suppler and less destructive penal techniques. Large numbers of factories needed to be staffed, workers trained, and minor pilfering had to be curtailed, and spectacles of public punishment were ill suited to training the populace in these more mundane new skills. The methods were developed initially in the army and then in hospitals, schools and factories.

First, came the development of techniques to control and oversee movement in and out of spaces. What was going on in these spaces could then be tabulated and organized in routines allowing for a finer-grained system of rewards and demerits overlaid. “Performance bonuses” and “docking of pay” were some of the many forms of conceptually conceived ranking procedures used to distinguish between good and bad performances. Students could be rewarded or rebuked by way of grades, workers by way of production quotas, white collar workers by way of performance measures. Out of these very basic innovations has come the world in which we live, in which relatively few people need be punished by the state for actual breaches of the law because most people now know what the government sees as “useful” and “productive” behavior. Infra-law is thus the regular accompaniment which has come to oversee the behavior of all citizens in public and in private.

The normalization of these innovations in political method means that today the vast majority of westerners know what is expected of them. Because a thin coverage of overseeing cameras and security guards are able to mete out the penalties that correspond with most mid-level infractions (from parking tickets to minor theft) they only need backing up by an even thinner layer of state-employed enforcement officers to deal with the few more aggressive infractions. This leaves the most extreme punishments for a new hidden realm, inside prison walls. These are the processes through which the fear of the judgment of legal authority is inculcated to “moralize” the citizenry.

To this description Eggers has added a new observation: that in the brave new world of social media, the primal fear motivating behavior is of being left out and feeling uncool; and the primal motivator is the desire to be “liked” and watched. Such fears and desires can be far more effectively harnessed to shape behavior by corporations and governments than even the old penalty-reward system of infra-law. Today a young person may work hard to get top grades in school, hoping to please his parents. But at the same time he’ll work even harder to be in the right clothes and be seen in the right places to project he image he desires to his cyber-peers.

Marketing experts have realized quickly that two sets of eyes can be counted on to direct behavior better than one. While the older techniques of infra-law worked for training good workers, the new ones are better at educating and fostering the willing consumer. The centrality of shaping consumption to social media is marked by the institutional fact that this new layer of infra-law finds its form (and funding) under the guidance of the corporation, whose ultimate bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Tensions are plainly possible with the old arbiter of law, the state, and its interest not in making money but in keeping the peace. Increasingly, however, these two aims are seen to converge in seeking the perfect docility of democracies populated by hard-working consumers.

What is especially striking about Eggers is his clear intuition that such trends demand a theological response. As the contemporary imagination becomes ever more convinced that the road to a moralized citizenry passes through the defile of transparency a looming spectre becomes difficult to ignore. Our culture is reinventing a de-transcendentalized version of an old insight of adherents of biblical faith: that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

In biblical faith the fear of God is not an emotion, but describes a way of life characterized by seriousness in the pursuit of lived holiness. Servile fear is the opposite of the respectful awe of God which is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Moses explicitly opposes these two forms of fear after giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Ex. 20:20). God’s approval of Abraham’s obedience in preparing to sacrifice Isaac is put in similar terms: “…now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son” (Gen. 22:12). Nor is this view substantially altered in the New Testament: “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (1 Peter 1:17). In the Bible, the “fear of the Lord” thus names the assent of the will to God’s claims on human life, an assent which overrides the fears of human praise and blame by which governing authorities have always shaped human behavior – a mantle now assumed by the corporation and its emphasis on pleasing the gaze of our peers.

For past Christians it was much easier to spot the mechanisms whereby the “fear of men” operated. Things were clear cut for Daniel when the king’s demand was to bow down and worship his image, or when the early Christians were asked to prove their loyalty to the gods of Rome by blaspheming Jesus Christ. The early martyrs knew what it meant to fear God and not men, a tradition clearly still alive in the theology of the Reformation. As Luther put it, “I am not to fear the judge or love the judge; but my fear and my trust are to be in someone else beyond the judge, namely, in God, who is my real judge. I ought to respect and honor the civil judge, who is the mask of God, for the sake of God. But my conscience dare not repose its trust in his justice; nor dare it be intimidated by his tyranny.”

We, however, are experiencing the birth of a new era, in which the old mechanisms of instilling the fears and the desires for approval are intentionally being made more subtle. The techniques of modern politics are less about deploying force to shape behavior and more about informing us that it is important to garner large numbers of “smiles” or “likes” while avoiding the ignominy of low “share” numbers. Rapidly, this is becoming the new coin of western wired societies, the currency shaping our vision of a good and meaningful life.

If the “fear of the Lord” characterizes the life Christians learn to live in the knowledge that God is judge, we need to ask what happens when socially connected consumer society reinvents this idea. What does it mean to make the on-line community our judge, one who is actively working to tell us what counts as good behavior and reinforcing it by making sure we know that every click, purchase, communication (written or spoken) is visible and recorded?

It is a sign of Eggers’ sense that these are properly theological questions when one of his core worries about these trends is placed on the lips of a not-entirely-coherent ex-priest.

“You and yours at the Circle”—and here he drew a circle in the air, horizontally, and Mae thought of a halo—“you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in one place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine!” And here he slammed his open palm upon the iron table, rattling his glass. “Now all humans will have the eyes of God. You know this passage? ‘all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of God.’ Something like that. You know your Bible?” Seeing the bland looks on the faces of Mae and Francis, he scoffed and took a long pull from his drink. “Now we’re all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We’ll see what He sees. We’ll articulate His judgment. We’ll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God’s will.” (395)

The aspiration to moralize all human life through transparency looks awfully similar to the eye of the eternal judge. But why is this a problem? The reduction of morality to transparency before humans makes grace and forgiveness extremely unlikely, Eggers points out. In the universal data-archive, we can be nothing more than our actions, good and bad, none of which can be erased (because this would breach the laws of transparency). The fear of men which keeps us moral, therefore, condemns us to eternal judgment by the masses, a significant number of whom will never be able to see us without the moral stains that cling to us.

One main character in the novel volunteers to the first subject of the program PastPerfect. (Eggers has a knack of creating Orwellian names for soon-to-be-real software products that sound remarkably like what we have come to expect from today’s technology giants). PastPerfect is like Google Street View for historical data, a vast project of digitizing and synchronizing the information from historical archives, photos, newsreels and amateur videos so that family lines and stories can be traced back through history with the click of a mouse. The unforgiving reality of such a technology, however, is displayed when one of the novel’s central characters is progressively unhinged by the personal horror and public disapproval that accrues around her. Once proudly believing herself to be a patrician blue-blood, she is broken down by waves of revelations about slave-owning ancestors, swinging parents and a multitude of formerly hidden instances of moral turpitude.

In a “blasphemous flash” (blasphemous against the mantra of the good of transparency) Mae, the novel’s protagonist, realizes that the dream of transparency moralizing humanity might not only be impractical, but also demonic in pretending a finite creature could ever mimic the final judge: “The flash opened up into something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable—it was too much.” (410)

Our transparency before God is more complete than our transparency before others will ever be and God’s judgment more threatening than will be the mere opprobrium of the masses. And yet God’s sight is characterized by a will to rescue us from our sin by covering, rather than exposing us. We learn already from the creation narratives that from the beginning God has graciously covered sinful, cowering, fleeing and self-justifying humans, graciously hiding the undeserving and shamed humans with a clothing of skins. This covering, Christian theologians have noted, is one of the many ways in which “Christ, our Deliverer…placed Himself between God and man as a Mediator.” This transparency before God is both complete, but also forgiving because accompanied by the promise to genuinely forget our stains. As the wise ones of Israel teach us, fearing the Lord who sees and judges all is the beginning of finding that way of life that is characterized as fearing no earthly approval or disapproval. Such a freedom that can be found only because Christians fear the Lord alone—who has come to us in Jesus Christ, who stands between us and the holy Judge of Israel who cannot abide injustice.

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About the Contributor

Brian Brock

Brian Brock
Brian Brock is Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at The University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He earned his MA and PhD at King's College, London. A theological ethicist by training, he has a keen interest in theologically-oriented cultural criticism and in constructive Christian ethics, especially as they relate to technological change. His most sustained theological interactions with contemporary late-modern culture can be found in his book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, as well as in Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, edited with John Swinton. He is also the author of Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture and Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader


  1. Your style is very unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from.

    Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this blog.

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