Home » On Trust and Transparency

For the Lyceum Institute Philosophical Happy Hour, 8 March 2023 from 5:45–7:15pm ET! Request an invite here.

Today the word “transparency” is haunting all spheres of life—not just politics but economics, too. More democracy, more freedom of information, and more efficiency are expected of transparency. Transparency creates trust, the new dogma affirms. What is forgotten thereby is that such insistence on transparency is occurring in a society where the meaning of “trust” has been massively compromised.

Wherever information is very easy to obtain, as is the case today, the social system switches from trust to control. The society of transparency is not a society of trust, but a society of control.

Transparency is an ideology. Like all ideologies, it has a positive core that has been mystified and made absolute. The danger of transparency lies in such ideologization. If totalized, it yields terror.

Byung-Chul Han, 2012: The Transparency Society, “Preface”, vii–viii.

Why has “transparency” come to haunt all the spheres of our lives? The causes, no doubt, are manifold. One reason, I believe, which Han does not here name, is that all the spheres of our lives have come under the sway of institutional dominion. Large companies—especially those in technology and most especially communication technologies, such as Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Meta, and so on—hold a certain sway over our actions. So, too, we have witnessed betrayal from institutions with a shocking, painful regularity. Do we trust our federal, our state governments? Our religious organizations? The opacity of these organizations has allowed abuse to proliferate (and, indeed, conspiracies to flourish).

But is it not the case, as Han posits in these selections, that our more fundamental problem is not a lack of transparency, but of trust?

It is not possible simply to replace trust, which makes way for free spheres of action, with control: “The people have to believe in and trust their ruler; when they trust, they grant him a measure of freedom to act without constant auditing, monitoring, and oversight. Lacking that autonomy, he could indeed never make a move.”

Trust is only possible in a state between knowing and not-knowing. Trust means establishing a positive relationship with the Other, even in ignorance. It makes actions possible despite one’s lack of knowledge. If I know everything in advance, there is no need for trust. Transparency is a state in which all not-knowing is eliminated. Where transparency prevails, no room for trust exists. Instead of affirming that “transparency creates trust,” one should instead say, “transparency dismantles trust.” The demand for transparency grows loud precisely when trust no longer prevails. In a society based on trust, no intrusive demand for transparency would surface. The society of transparency is a society of mistrust and suspicion; it relies on control because of vanishing confidence. Strident calls for transparency point to the simple fact that the moral foundation of society has grown faulty, that moral values such as honesty and uprightness are losing their meaning more and more.

Byung-Chul Han, 2012: The Transparency Society, “The Society of Control”, 47–48.

We do patently live in a society of mistrust and suspicion. What are we to do about this? How do we rebuild trust? What does it mean to have trust? In what, in whom? Are trust and transparency absolute opposites? Are agents of institutions required to be somehow transparent in order that they build trust? Can transparency restore or build trust? What roles do transparency and trust play in our personal lives?

Join us this evening (5:45–7:15pm ET, just write “happy hour”) to discuss the meaning of trust and transparency, and keep an eye on our calendar for more upcoming events!

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