Skip to content →

Social Surfaces: Transparency, Camouflage, Strangeness

There’s a thought running round that says that social media is engendering a new age of transparency. When we use the word ‘transparency’ we speak of a material through which light passes with clarity. If conditions aren’t completely clear, we might call the material translucent, which would allow light to pass through it diffusely. And if we can’t see anything at all, we’ll call it opaque, a material with a surface that doesn’t allow even a speck of light through it.

If it is we who are ‘transparent,’ it’s as though our skin has turned to glass and the social, psychological and biological systems operating within us are available for public inspection. It’s thought that by virtue of their pure visibility these systems can be understood, influenced and predicted. Although for most of us, when we lift the hood of our car and inspect the engine it’s strictly a matter of form. We know whether the engine is running or not, but that’s about the limit for a non-specialist.

Much like “open” and “closed,” the word transparency is associated with the forces of good, while opacity is delegated to play for the evil team. We should like to know that a thing is transparent, that we could have a look at it if we chose to, even if we don’t understand it at the moment. Certainly there must an e-book somewhere that we could page through for an hour or so to get a handle on the fundamentals. On the other hand, if a thing is opaque, we’re left with a mystery without the possibility of a solution. After all, we don’t have x-ray vision. How else can we possibly get beneath the surface to find out what’s going on?

Ralph Ellison wrote about social invisibility in his book The Invisible Man. The narrator of the story is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype rather than as a real person. In a stereotype, a surface image is substituted for the whole entity. Although Ellison’s narrator acknowledges that sometimes invisibility has its advantages. Surface and depth each have their time and place.

Jeff Jonas, in a recent post called “Transparency as a Mask,” talks about the chilling effect of transparency. If we exist in a social media environment of pure visibility, a sort of panopticon of the Network, how will this change the incentives around our behavior? Jonas wonders whether we might see a mass migration toward the average, toward the center of the standard deviation chart, the normal part of the normal distribution. Here’s Jonas on the current realities of data correlation.

Unlike two decades ago, humans are now creating huge volumes of extraordinarily useful data as they self-annotate their relationships and yours, their photographs and yours, their thoughts and their thoughts about you … and more.

With more data, comes better understanding and prediction.  The convergence of data might reveal your “discreet? rendezvous or the fact you are no longer on speaking terms your best friend.  No longer secret is your visit to the porn store and the subsequent change in your home’s late night energy profile, another telling story about who you are … again out of the bag, and little you can do about it.  Pity … you thought that all of this information was secret.

Initially the Network provided a kind of equal footing for those four or five standard deviations off center, in a sense this is the basis of the long tail. The margins and the center all play in the same frictionless hypermedia environment. When these deviations become visible and are correlated with other private and public data, the compilation of these surface views create an actionable picture with multiple dimensions. Suddenly there’s a valuable information asymmetry produced with an affordable amount of compute time.

Only the mediocre are always at their best.
Jean Giraudoux

However, once we know someone is scanning and correlating the facets of our presence on the Network, what’s to stop us from signaling normal, creating a mask of transparency?

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

We may evolve, adapt to the new environment. The chameleon and many other creatures change their appearance to avoid detection. We may also become shape shifters, changing the colors of our digital skin to sculpt an impression for key databases.

In ecology, crypsis is the ability of an organism to avoid observation or detection by other organisms. A form of antipredator adaptation, methods range from camouflage, nocturnality, subterranean lifestyle, transparency, or mimicry

Of course, there’s a chance we won’t be fooling anyone. A false signal here or there will be filtered out and the picture will be assembled despite our best efforts at camouflage.

There’s another path through these woods. Historically, a much less travelled path. That’s the path of tolerance, of embracing and celebrating difference, and acknowledging our own strangeness. While it’s possible that a human can empathize with the strangeness of another human, the question we have to ask in this new era of digital transparency is: how can an algorithm be made to process strangeness without automatically equating it with error?

Published in culture desire difference identity media network real time web user data zettel

One Comment

Comments are closed.