“TOO MUCH TRANSPARENCY CAN ACTUALLY MAKE INFORMATION HARDER TO SEE.“
—— Most of the world would love to be transparent—at least, that’s what people demand. Sascha Friesike explains why this often goes awry and why it’s much more a question of the right degree of transparency.
TEXT NILS WISCHMEYER PHOTO STOCKSY/MARIA ALTYNBAEVA
Mr. Friesike, companies and politicians are saying the same thing: We need more transparency. Where is this impulse coming from?
There are two reasons for it. Number one, the concept of transparency has an incredibly positive connotation. Everyone associates it with something good and nobody would criticize calls for more transparency. That’s why you can ask for more transparency in practically any situation, regardless of how useful it actually is. Number two, today we have technology that makes it relatively simple to make something transparent. Data can be sent or linked, so we can easily make it accessible to others.
That sounds great.
Yes and no. Transparency isn’t an end in itself. It’s a bit like a window. No one collects windows, nobody says we must increase the number of windows. Windows are always a means to an end. We want to look through them to the outside, we want to let in some air, and especially we want light to come in. Transparency is similarly nothing more than a means to an end. If we just create transparency for its own sake, it can even negatively affect the goal we are trying to achieve. So we need to use transparency consciously for particular purposes.
What could one of those purposes be?
In principle, there are two traditional reasons for more transparency. Firstly, for accountability. In this case, I want more transparency as evidence that someone is doing the right thing. That’s what called for in politics, for instance, when politicians should show that they’re doing a good job. To check this, we quickly return to the demand for more transparency. Then there’s also the visibility factor. Here, for example, transparency is supposed to reveal information so that we can make better, more informed decisions. Amusingly, in neither case does science assume that more transparency automatically leads to the goal. The relationships are more complex.
Getting back to visibility for a moment, why wouldn’t more transparency lead to more visibility?
There is what’s known as the transparency paradox. This describes how transparency and visibility don’t always go hand in hand. That is, more transparency doesn’t necessarily lead to more visibility. If we plot the terms on a graph, we see more of an up-and-down movement. Visibility increases with increasing transparency up to a certain point, and then begins to fall. Because at some point, you’ve reached the spot where there is too much data, too much information. It may be transparent, but we can no longer keep track of it. And that means that the content is now becoming less visible, not more.
“If the goal is for the consumer to make better purchasing decisions, then I have to find the right degree of transparency.”
That sounds very abstract. Could you give an example of this?
I regularly go shopping with my four-year-old daughter. In the supermarket, she then suddenly wants a brightly colored drink and I need to make an ad-hoc decision about which one is the healthiest for such a young child. Of course, the ingredients are all listed in the fine print, so there’s a high degree of transparency. Except that this doesn’t really help me because I don’t spontaneously understand that glucose syrup is simply sugar and how much 10 grams per 100 milliliters extrapolated to a whole bottle actually is. Not to mention that I would still have to compare all the bottles to one another. The key facts I need get lost in the noise of too much information. The solution might be some sort of “traffic signal” labeling for children’s foods that clearly indicates: green is healthy, orange is so-so, and red shouldn’t really be bought at all. In such a case, an aggregate of information could lead to a better decision. So it’s always about the right level of transparency, which we can often only create through a summary, simplification or visualization. I always have to ask myself: What is my goal? Why do I want to make something transparent? If the honest goal is for me to make better purchasing decisions as a consumer, then I have to find the right degree of transparency.
So how do you find the right level?
There’s no easy across-the-board answer. From my experience, it starts with asking the right questions, like in our example asking consumers: Do you have a flood of information here or is something missing? Consumers can usually assess that. In addition, you need to think about the context when designing a collection of information: How much time does someone in a supermarket have to make a decision and what prior knowledge can I assume is available? This is where it’s important for people to think about if they want to make a product or process more transparent. After all, it’s almost never about making something transparent for someone who is knowledgeable, but for people who only understand part of the whole.
In the digital world, the desire for transparency is even more common. Is it more helpful there?
Often too much transparency is demanded there, as well. In the analog world—take packaging as an example—the space for transparency is limited. At some point, there’s just no more room to write anything. Things are different in the digital world. Just take a look at the privacy policies of your social networks. Everything that you need to know is in there, it’s all very transparent. But it’s book-length. Nobody reads it and yet everyone clicks on “I have read and understood everything.” The visibility here is even much lower, because you would probably need days to understand it all. Something has been created here under the guise of transparency that ends up being basically invisible.
You previously mentioned accountability. How does that relate to transparency?
Transparency can also be something that someone demands in order to check up on others. For instance, you’re an employer who would like to know whether someone in the office is doing what they are supposed to do. But you can’t always be looking over your employees’ shoulders. So you aggregate data and then something very human happens: your employees start to think about it. For instance, if the system tracks and measures mouse movements on the PC, someone will come up with the idea to move their mouse even if they aren’t working at that moment. The desire for more transparency may thus lead to employees putting their energy into outsmarting the system rather than into the work that was supposed to have been made more transparent.
Taking another look at offices, the trend toward open offices and co-working spaces seems unstoppable right now. They, too, are supposed to lead to more transparent communication. Is it working?
It’s true, the urge toward more transparency is a big driver of our office architecture today: lots of glass, lots of open spaces. In fact, the goal is always the same: people should become more open and communication flows more transparent. Unfortunately, this also often tends to go wrong. There’s a much-cited study that shows that one-on-one communication in such offices doesn’t increase, but, on the contrary, dramatically decreases—a decrease of 70 percent in the study! The reason is that the constant chatter annoys others, and people often don’t want to discuss things in the larger group. In the end, that sort of office can become a panopticon, where everyone feels under constant surveillance and no longer dares to talk, turning to email instead. The solution here is to find a healthy balance. Ultimately, what’s needed is a mixed form of open office and closed rooms that allows as much transparency as really makes sense in the specific context.