Why Transparency Won’t Save Us

The public is burdened with duties it cannot possibly fulfill: to read every terms of service, understand every complex case of algorithmic harm, fact-check every piece of news

In a society beset with black-boxed algorithms and vast surveillance systems, transparency is often hailed as liberal democracy’s superhero. It’s a familiar story: inject the public with information to digest, then await their rational deliberation and improved decision making. Whether in discussions of facial recognition software or platform moderation, we run into the argument that transparency will correct the harmful effects of algorithmic systems. The trouble is that in our movies and comic books, superheroes are themselves deus ex machina: black boxes designed to make complex problems disappear so that the good guys can win. Too often, transparency is asked to save the day on its own, under the assumption that disinformation or abuse of power can be shamed away with information.

Transparency without adequate support, however, can quickly become fuel for speculation and misunderstanding. Even the Snowden leaks — possibly the most spectacular exposure of data-collection systems in the last 20 years — did not simply illuminate the truth for all. As I write in my book, Technologies of Speculation,the information that Edward Snowden brought forth was often practically impossible for the public to fully grasp. For one thing, the classified National Security Agency files that he copied and disclosed were so sprawling that Snowden himself tacitly admitted that he had not read everything. Even as the initial leaks dominated the news cycle, a survey from the Pew Research Center reported that among those Americans polled, more than half were following the affair either “not too closely” or “not at all closely.”

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