December 06, 2016
The Panama Papers were a treasure trove of information about corporate shell games. That kind of massive-scale disclosure would have been impossible in earlier eras, before everything was digitally archived and could be leaked across the ocean at light speed. Imagine if all such hidden archives were to come out—the entire iceberg lifted into the open.
Let’s check ourselves, though. For one thing, the information wouldn’t be self-explanatory; it would require an army of investigators—journalistic and forensic—to break it down. And, for another, are we that comfortable with private information being forcibly made public?
To some extent we don’t mind making our own information public. We may have reservations in principle, but in practice most of us click the terms of service without a thought and proceed to open our lives to the scrutiny of social media and its gatekeepers. For better or worse, there has been a big shift in our expectations about what privacy means.
This suggests that, in thinking about how to hold individuals and institutions accountable, we might look in a different direction than the fantasy of a universal leak. As our expectations change in response to practices of sharing information, they drive the development of those practices further. So if we like the idea of transparency, how can we enact it?
Incrementally, perhaps entrepreneurially. With the technological apparatus now available to us, we might devise systems to encourage the sharing of information about, say, corporate ownership, or corrupt practices. The word isn’t quite right—social media don’t “encourage” us to share information; they invite us, seduce us, give us a platform on which our sharing is meaningful to us, and where the information shared is meaningful to others. Can sharing the minutiae of compliance ever come to be that satisfying—even addictive?
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