Glass House Conversation: Transparency

Next week I’m traveling to New York to participate in a conversation at the Philip Johnson Glass House — it’s a sort of design+culture+art salon where a number of leaders talk about various topics and seek to understand and act as catalysts for new sorts of action.

I was invited after an introduction from my friend Diego, who attended a John Maeda-led Conversation last year on Simplicity — Diego reports that his experience there was incredible and thought-provoking.

Our conversation will be moderated by Cliff Pearson of Architectural Record, tackling the topic of “Transparency.” Many of the participants look to be design & architectural — it looks like I’m the lone Left Coast/tech nerd representative. (Think they’ll be surprised when I tweet from our session in the spirit of transparency? :-))

In that spirit, wanted to blog with some links before I went, and ask you what you think is important to talk about in the context of transparency in our modern society? Transparency of organizations (like companies and governments)? Transparency of products (like open source)? Transparency of thoughts? Action? Buildings? What aspects of transparency deserve more thought & attention & discourse?

(photo credit


  1. Sounds like an interesting time, John.

    I was about to say I’d like much more transparency into the ways big organizations (particularly governmental ones) are doing things (e.g. spending money, enforcing laws, running schools, etc.)

    But then I had the thought that what I really want in those cases isn’t really more transparency, but more freedom. Transparency gives you insight into things others are doing. Freedom lets you (or collectively all of us) just do what you want to do. With the latter, you don’t need so much of the former.

    For example, would I rather have better visibility into every line of our $1.75T deficit? Or would I rather just have way less government spending and let people do with their money what they judge to be in their best interests? The latter.

    Would I rather have better visibility into the ways various interests groups come together to create the teaching agenda for our public schools? Or would I rather just have a voucher I could use to send my child to any school I wanted to, allowing the schools to differentiate and cater to niches just as happens in every area of our economy? The latter.

    Would I rather have better transparency into the way the FDA makes decisions on which drugs are safe enough to be approved for public uset? Or would I rather have the FDA simply approve everything that’s effective even if it’s not safe, and then provide a lot of information so I can decide with my doctor what safety risks I want to take? The latter.

    So, in many areas of life I think giving people the ability to make their own decisions would reduce the need for increased transparency.

    That said, I’d like more transparency in accounting rules; government spending at all levels; and the intersection of accounting and government spending (i.e. don’t hide the pension liabilities we’re on the hook for).

    I’d also like apples to apples comparability of metrics across nations.

  2. I think transparency of organizations is incredibly important for organizations that I am part of. For organizations that I am not part of, maybe it is more important to me to have transparency in their products.

    So for example the goverment is an organization that I essentially am a part of since I am the one electing them, and their decisions is something that affects me no matter what I do.

    So it’s actually more important that the goverment is transparent and we know what they are doing and why they are doing it, than that they take an particular action for any particular reason. That way we can always adjust things in the next election. Which means there is great incentive for officials to do what they were elected to do.

    Also, if a goverment is transparent and open in what it does, and it gets re-elected. Then even if I don’t like what they are doing I’ll just have to accept it’s the will of the people.

    But for example a company that I buy products from, I care more about that I have insight in their products, than that I have insight into how they chose to make that product. For example I care about if a food item has been produced using organic ingredients, and if a clothing item has been created by well treated factory workers. But I don’t care as much why they decided to elect a given CEO or why they chose to release a certain range of products.

    Maybe what it comes down to is that I care about openness in the touchpoints that I have with an organization.

    Of course, I believe that openness in all areas is ultimately the best way for any organization. Weather I’m part of it or not.

  3. John, this sounds like an interesting event. When I heard of it, I thought about the recent list of “13 opens” that Christian Crumlish was twittering and that Mike Migurski of Stamen collected in this blog post:

    I’m sure there are more than 13 and ‘open’ is not necessarily ‘transparent’ but I thought it would be good for rumination.

  4. I feel like there’s a sense that we need top down transparency, and I don’t think that anyone would disagree with that. (Who would dare, honestly?) But I also think that it requires a bottom up approach as well, starting with the micro. More personal transparency, if you will. I’m really talking about self-awareness and personal honesty. Both in the way that you think about yourself, but also in how you reach out in an individual basis to others. Not hiding what you’re looking for, not playing games with others and understanding that the chance you have to grow others is there with every interaction that you have.

  5. I would ask metaphorically – when do “see through walls” become “porn” or when do they become so prevalent in a neighborhood… that it becomes “an invitation to thieves to case houses before a robbery” and does that effect the inhabitants ability to work?…

    and in a country where in it’s constitution it hasthings like …protecting specific aspects of privacy, such as the privacy of beliefs (1st Amendment), privacy of the home against demands that it be used to house soldiers (3rd Amendment), privacy of the person and possessions as against unreasonable searches (4th Amendment), and the 5th Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination, which provides protection for the privacy of personal information…

    and since 1928 a supreme court pattern of rulings that speak to a popular belief in protecting privacy as an inherent piece of liberty…

    where is that line in a “corporation” or a “small” business… or an independent contractor.

    In a wave/paradigm shift of openness and arguments about artists, writers and web development be “common,” what represents someone inventing the concept of “a road”…or inventing “a Highway system” and then saying they own it

    vs. what represents Henry Ford having the right to invest his life and livelihood in something that he may be able to be rewarded for and have the privacy to create without worry that as he is working …someone with more money won’t come along and create what he was working on faster.

    those are the questions I hope would be asked.

  6. I have to say I hope your discussion includes people from old business that have been burned by being transparent…and burned others by building uncreditedly on others transparency… As well as those who were lucky enough not to have those challenges yet. I have to say in attending so many discussions now with the open community…and the free groups etc… There is a ghettoizing of thought that is really destructive on these subjects and destructively limiting to the success of the community…and the idea of transparency that is worrisome.

  7. Sounds like an interesting time.I think transparency of organizations is incredibly important for organizations that I am part of.