More Transparency, Coming Right Up!

By Terry Calhoun

I’m finishing this on a flight from Detroit to downtown Washington, D.C. And I’m writing about “transparency” once again because I can’t seem to stop thinking about that concept lately. I’m reminded of it everywhere I turn.

Walking to my gate in the terminal, I saw but could not hear a commercial on a flat screen television that showed a poor soul in a middle seat of an airplane trying to work on his laptop with some level of confidentiality. Of course you can’t do that on a flight, really, and I don’t particularly care if the attractive and obviously European (although so far silent) lady sitting in the next seat reads what I write.

But the fellow in the commercial apparently cares. He looks to his left, and the person looking at his screen on the left looks away, just as the person to his right starts staring at his screen, then he looks to the right and his co-passengers switch gazing directions. I hope the commercial is set to some kind of bouncy music. What is it selling? A screen that slips over your screen and presumably prevents the person on either side from viewing your screen. Then the poor fellow in the middle will be safe from spying.

Good luck with that.

Leonard Cohen is singing “Everybody Knows,” with incredible timing as these words go into Microsoft Word. And he’s right, especially if he’s singing about the future, because we’re heading for a future where everybody d'es know, or at least enough people know about enough things that everybody might as well know.

Over at DailyKos they’re trying to piece together allegations made by some of Virginia Senator George Allen’s college buddies that after a hunting trip he stuffed a deer’s head into the mailbox of an African-American home with official records that show him having been arrested or having some kind of warrant out in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1973.

Meanwhile, a writer for Wired has written an algorithm that searches MySpace for the names of known sex offenders and actually assisted a local police force in Suffolk County, N.Y., with the apprehension of 39-year-old Andrew Lubrano, a man who was soliciting youngsters via that social network.

And at the same time, the New York Times writes about how commercial databases on private citizens are destroying the principle of “sealed records” that are expunged. (After a minor d'es community service and then stays out of trouble for a while, for example.)

Forget about stuffing a deer’s head into a mailbox, all around the civilized world people are running around trying to stuff “facts” back into their boxes like a 3-year-old wielding a plastic hammer at a pop-up toy. And, I think, ultimately with about as much success, or even less.

The DailyKos thing is fun, I happen to hope that they find another “Macaca” in that particular box. The Wired item is very interesting, because it points out quite clearly that it is not the technology that keeps us from doing more things like this, it is politics and will.

The New York Times article is both heartening and chilling. Basically, lots of people who have been in trouble but who have had their criminal records expunged – officially – are finding that the huge commercial databases that know so much about our finances are also collecting a lot more information about us. I wonder if that air-sniffer machine at security can do DNA tests on flakes of dandruff? Hmm…

Maybe we’ll end up with a culture where wealthy people and companies spend money trying to buy privacy and make things less transparent, while at the same time spend money trying to make sure that they know enough about everyone else to take advantage and make more money. Maybe not. One heartening thing occurred on this flight. Even though it was pretty strange it was entertaining. (I’m finishing this in D.C., as my batteries died on the plane; but that’s another story.)

As we were all belted in and expecting for the plane to back out of the terminal to take off, the captain came on and told us there would be a delay. It happens, but this captain was refreshingly transparent. He said that we could not take off because he had no co-pilot. The intended co-pilot had checked in at the terminal an hour earlier but was nowhere to be found.

Amusing? For me it was, even though I was late with an appointment with two of my favorite people who live in DC, former SCUP president Carole Wharton and Project Kaleidoscope executive director Jeanne Narum.

I’ve been stuck on planes before, but I’ve never been in a situation where we mere passengers were promptly told exactly what the problem was, and were then kept informed. While we waited no one got upset because we knew what was going on. We trusted that what could be done was being done, because we were actually being told what was being done.

Transparency works wonders. In ten years, if we can afford to fly as individuals and if we have a functioning air transit system post-peak-oil, I expect that we’ll all be kept up to date by third-party notification via whatever our personal computing devices look like and are called at that time. Kind of a mini-crisis communications system where the airline actually d'es know what’s going on with its planes all of the time and has contracted with a service to also track that and kick into gear for the customers as needed.

As for those huge, commercial databases, maybe they’re bad and maybe they’re good. But I suspect that access to whatever they collect will end up available, not just to large institutions and wealthy people, but to all of us. That will be a very different playing field than the one we are on now, but it will at least be – in the Thomas Friedman sense – a level playing field.

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