Transparency II: how transparency results in less freedom and sociability

Last week I argued for a combination of transparency and mystery. Today I will argue why we should aim for less transparency.

Openness, or transparency, has been a hot topic over the past decade. Banks, big corporations, governments, newspapers… – considered by many not the most open institutions – all scream the loudest on how ‘transparent’ they are, trying to convince the public they have nothing to hide. In order to prove their point in a physical way shiny glass buildings are erected, trying desperately to meet the modernist ideal of transparency to create an open and ‘hygienic’ society. Yes, transparency stands for the ideal of openness and purity. But does this automatically lead to more democratic spaces, more freedom, or even truth? I will argue why this is not necessarily so by addressing two implications of transparency: one political, the other social.

Permanent visibility and obidiance
The first implication can be clarified by the French philosopher Michel Foucault by explanation of the ‘Panopticon principle‘. The principle of the Panopticon, a kind of prison, is as follows: in an annular building cells are seperated from each other by walls but opened up fully towards the watchtower. The guard is placed in the tower in such a way that the inmate does not know when he is being looked at. This ‘gives the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’. Power is no longer enforced by strenght and enclosure but simply by (the doubt of any possible) observation to which the inmate must remain obedient, on which Foucault writes:

“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself te power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

In other words: permanent visibility has a powerful effect on the individual’s behaviour, in the way that he will remain obedient towards the society to which he is exposed.

Transparency holds back sociability
The second implication, addressed by the American sociologist Richard Sennet, it that of the creation of isolation through aethetic visibility. With the example of the open-office floor plan, where visual barriers are destroyed by doing away with office walls, creating one vast open space so that everyone is visually exposed to one another, he shows how sociability is hold back:

“When everyone has each other under surveillance, sociability decreases, silence being the only form of protection. [As] people are more sociable, the more they have some tangible barriers between them, just as they need specific places in public whose sole purpose is to bring them together. Let us put this another way again: Human beigns need to have some distance from intimate observation by others in order to feel sociable. Increase intimate contact and you decrease sociability.”

In the end, this idea of the permeable (transparent) wall, which is applied within buildings as on the skin, results in what Sennett calls “dead public space”. Its function as a place where persons and diverse activities intermix is replaced by the function of motion and “loses any independent experiential meaning of its own”.

 Next week I will argue possible ways to incorporate mystery into design and why this is important.


– Foucault, Michel. ‘Panopticism’. In Leach, Neil (ed.) (1997). Rethinking Architecture: Reader in Cultural Theory.
– Sennett, Richard (2003). The Fall of Public Man.