Transparency and Secrecy

[Started working on this post on December 1st, based on something which happened a few days prior. Since then, several things happened which also connected to this post. Thought the timing was right to revisit the entry and finally publish it. Especially since a friend just teased me for not blogging in a while.]

I’m such a strong advocate of transparency that I have a real problem with secrecy.

I know, transparency is not exactly the mirror opposite of secrecy. But I think my transparency-radical perspective causes some problem in terms of secrecy-management.

“Haven’t you been working with a secret society in Mali?,” you ask. Well, yes, I have. And secrecy hasn’t been a problem in that context because it’s codified. Instead of a notion of “absolute secrecy,” the Malian donsow I’ve been working with have a subtle, nuanced, complex, layered, contextually realistic, elaborate, and fascinating perspective on how knowledge is processed, “transmitted,” managed. In fact, my dissertation research had a lot to do with this form of knowledge management. The term “knowledge people” (“karamoko,” from kalan+mogo=learning+people) truly applies to members of hunter’s associations in Mali as well as to other local experts. These people make a clear difference between knowledge and information. And I can readily relate to their approach. Maybe I’ve “gone native,” but it’s more likely that I was already in that mode before I ever went to Mali (almost 11 years ago).

Of course, a high value for transparency is a hallmark of academia. The notion that “information wants to be free” makes more sense from an academic perspective than from one focused on a currency-based economy. Even when people are clear that “free” stands for “freedom”/«libre» and not for “gratis”/«gratuit» (i.e. “free as in speech, not free as in beer”), there persists a notion that “free comes at a cost” among those people who are so focused on growth and profit. IMHO, most the issues with the switch to “immaterial economies” (“information economy,” “attention economy,” “digital economy”) have to do with this clash between the value of knowledge and a strict sense of “property value.”

But I digress.

Or, do I…?

The phrase “radical transparency” has been used in business circles related to “information and communication technology,” a context in which the “information wants to be free” stance is almost the basis of a movement.

I’m probably more naïve than most people I have met in Mali. While there, a friend told me that he thought that people from the United States were naïve. While he wasn’t referring to me, I can easily acknowledge that the naïveté he described is probably characteristic of my own attitude. I’m North American enough to accept this.

My dedication to transparency was tested by an apparently banal set of circumstances, a few days before I drafted this post. I was given, in public, information which could potentially be harmful if revealed to a certain person. The harm which could be done is relatively small. The person who gave me that information wasn’t overstating it. The effects of my sharing this information wouldn’t be tragic. But I was torn between my radical transparency stance and my desire to do as little harm as humanly possible. So I refrained from sharing this information and decided to write this post instead.

And this post has been sitting in my “draft box” for a while. I wrote a good number of entries in the meantime but I still had this one at the back of my mind. On the backburner. This is where social media becomes something more of a way of life than an activity. Even when I don’t do anything on this blog, I think about it quite a bit.

As mentioned in the preamble, a number of things have happened since I drafted this post which also relate to transparency and secrecy. Including both professional and personal occurrences. Some of these comfort me in my radical transparency position while others help me manage secrecy in a thoughtful way.

On the professional front, first. I’ve recently signed a freelance ethnography contract with Toronto-based consultancy firm Idea Couture. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Even before signing the contract/NDA, I was asking fellow ethnographer and blogger Morgan Gerard about disclosure. Thanks to him, I now know that I can already disclose several things about this contract and that, once the results are public, I’ll be able to talk about this freely. Which all comforts me on a very deep level. This is precisely the kind of information and knowledge management I can relate to. The level of secrecy is easily understandable (inopportune disclosure could be detrimental to the client). My commitment to transparency is unwavering. If all contracts are like this, I’ll be quite happy to be a freelance ethnographer. It may not be my only job (I already know that I’ll be teaching online, again). But it already fits in my personal approach to information, knowledge, insight.

I’ll surely blog about private-sector ethnography. At this point, I’ve mostly been preparing through reading material in the field and discussing things with friends or colleagues. I was probably even more careful than I needed to be, but I was still able to exchange ideas about market research ethnography with people in diverse fields. I sincerely think that these exchanges not only add value to my current work for Idea Couture but position me quite well for the future. I really am preparing for freelance ethnography. I’m already thinking like a freelance ethnographer.

There’s a surprising degree of “cohesiveness” in my life, these days. Or, at least, I perceive my life as “making sense.”

And different things have made me say that 2009 would be my year. I get additional evidence of this on a regular basis.

Which brings me to personal issues, still about transparency and secrecy.

Something has happened in my personal life, recently, that I’m currently unable to share. It’s a happy circumstance and I’ll be sharing it later, but it’s semi-secret for now.

Thing is, though, transparency was involved in that my dedication to radical transparency has already been paying off in these personal respects. More specifically, my being transparent has been valued rather highly and there’s something about this type of validation which touches me deeply.

As can probably be noticed, I’m also becoming more public about some emotional dimensions of my life. As an artist and a humanist, I’ve always been a sensitive person, in-tune with his emotions. Specially positive ones. I now feel accepted as a sensitive person, even if several people in my life tend to push sensitivity to the side. In other words, I’ve grown a lot in the past several months and I now want to share my growth with others. Despite reluctance toward the “touchy-feely,” specially in geek and other male-centric circles, I’ve decided to “let it all loose.” I fully respect those who dislike this. But I need to be myself.

5 thoughts on “Transparency and Secrecy”

  1. Very thought-provoking stuff! I’m also in favor of transparency, and the free flow of information.

    I’m happy for you about whatever good is going on in your personal life, and for getting in touch with your touchy-feely side!

  2. @Alejna And thanks for commenting!
    As my life is changing, comments like these confirm a lot of my thinking.
    Of course I’m hesitant to “lay it all out” and I’m rather careful in terms of privacy and such. Not to mention the fact that I adopt a more Anglo attitude to emotions when I write in English. But my commitment to both intellectual and emotional honesties seems to be an important part of my life changes and those of my friends who are coming along are really helping.

    Thanks again!

  3. I’ve run into some interesting issues with transparency in my recent thesis writing marathon. There are numerous interactions I’d like to discuss in my thesis which occured publicly online, but are of some embarassment to individuals involved. It’s now impossible for me to ‘mask’ their identities, since anything I write about occurred in public, and has been archived. (so changing peoples names wouldn’t work to hide anything, since the events are easy to find since I referred to them on my blog already).

    Saying that it all happened in public, doesn’t seem to justify ‘amplifying’ the events in my thesis. So instead I’m actually trying to write dry, general, descriptions of the events as opposed to including lively direct transcriptions of dialogues. Nothing I am writing about would be very damaging, but there are times when it is polite to let a conversation die!

  4. @Owen
    A tricky situation which has some connection to your fieldwork.
    In fact, as I was thinking back about this post in my personal life, I was thinking about the notion that “online, we’re all celebrities.” I posted that on social media and then included it in a presentation about social media in academic contexts. The idea isn’t that we’re all well-known, that we could all appear on a variety show, that there should be magazines about us… But we’re all “public figures” in that we’re all exposed. There’s obviously a question of degree, some people are more exposed than others. Lots of things have been said about privacy, ways to protect your online identity online, etc. But the analogy with the “star system” is interesting because it shows a major difference: there are so many of us who are so public that “fame and glamour” are distributed. Contrary to Hollywood where the star system generates its own fame and glamour internally with approval by the general population, we take part in a reputation system which redistributes a modest amount of fame and glamour internally.
    But that’s clearly going in a different direction from your comment.

    Seems to me, you’re dealing with a matter of “careful information management” in that you have to deal with transparency, but there’s also an issue of timeframe. Because your writing is so direct, your mention of these events is embedded in the temporal context in which these events happened, if not in the actual events themselves.
    Pre-crisis ethnographic representation dealt with this through spatial, temporal, and linguistic “displacement.” By the time the monograph was written (in the “ethnographic present”), the events which were the object of the description had become almost “historical.” In other words “let the dust settle.” Because the monograph was usually written in a language different from that of those who were present during field research, there was this notion that the monograph wouldn’t be that significant locally, in terms of daily interactions. And given the geographical distance between the typical researcher and the typical field, there was even a matter of «a beau mentir qui vient de loin».
    I say this in a post-crisis context and it may sound like I’m still criticizing old ethnographers. One thing which has been done a lot is to set the crisis of representation as a kind of cutoff point, with all pre-crisis ethnographers working in a similar mode and everybody since then having to know the deepest intricacies of representation. My description makes it sound as if all fieldworkers were working far from home and had a condescending view of those people with whom they worked.
    That’d be a gross overstatement. But a statement which should, hopefully, bring about a few ideas about the ways these issues are entangled.
    I do claim that we’re past the “crisis of representation.” But there’s a Foucault-like continuity between pre-crisis issues and current (post-crisis) issues in ethnography.
    The displacement I described sounds like a caricature. But it had some benefits over your fieldwork.
    To go back to my post, in this context… People in Mali have been quite explicit about the value of displacement. They said, in so many words, that what I’d write (even secrets) wouldn’t matter much because of such a distance between my own context and “local concerns.” Even if I divulge very precisely a secret passed on by a senior hunter, my status is such that junior hunters wouldn’t care. As for conflicts which were raging on while I was in the field, they lose a large part of their virulence when taken out of context. People who have been involved may still be sensitive about it. But my descriptions would be so decontextualized that they wouldn’t have much of an impact.

    Your case is quite different, if I get this right. You’re talking about things which are going on right now, among people who use the same media. It’s easy to talk about the Tanenbaum-Torvalds debate, at the present time, without incurring the wrath of the participants (both of whom are still alive, AFAICT). But it’s much more difficult to talk about some of the current debates. There’s both an issue of «jetter de l’huile sur le feu», an issue of emotional distance, and the issue of immediacy. The one which is most specific to your field is immediacy.
    Maybe there should be “timed-release capsules” for theses… 😉

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