Unavoidable Frictions to Transparency

There is transparency when “activities are done in an open way without secrets, so that people can trust that they are fair and honest” [1]. If there is consensus that transparency is desirable, can it be practically achieved? Or, why couldn’t it be achieved?

For this to be the case, it should be possible to observe activities as they happen, or be able to access information about how these activities happened. Since there is an opportunity cost to observe, or plainly, you may have better things to do than observe, transparency is likely to require a record of how activities were conducted. 

In most cases, then, the best you have if you want transparency is second hand information, someone’s record of what was done and how it was done. Let’s call this the evidence of transparency.

It follows that there are three sources of friction to transparency, and none have to do with anyone’s intentions around increasing or decreasing transparency, related to accuracy of evidence, translation of evidence, and resources to access evidence.

Robert Morris, Untitled 1965, reconstructed 1971 [Source]

It is unlikely that there are tools and resources available to ensure that records of events and actions are recorded in such a way that they fully and appropriately reflect the actual events and actions, as they occurred. In other words, it is unlikely that second hand information can be equal to information you would get from experiencing the events and actions that you expect to be transparent. 

If we are interested in the transparency of actions and events which require specific knowledge, skill, or experience to appreciate, then the value of evidence for the transparency of these will depend on our ability to bridge those knowledge, skill, and experience gaps. In other words, because I specialize in specific domains of knowledge, because I have only my own experience and have developed only a limited range of skills, I cannot draw the same conclusions from the same body of evidence as someone with different knowledge, experience, and skill. I need translation of evidence of actions and events that I do not have sufficient knowledge to fully appreciate, and therefore, because of this deficiency, I cannot judge if information I am given reflects adequate transparency about these events and actions.

The volume of evidence for transparency may be such that there is not enough time available to go through it. The opportunity cost of ascertaining transparency may be prohibitive, leading to the situation in which transparency is assumed, even without consulting all available evidence for it; therefore, to accept that there is transparency is to make a bet that the sample of evidence consulted, and accepted, is representative of all available evidence.

The broader point is that achieving transparency is not fully determined by the intentions of everyone involved. There are sources of frictions which are unavoidable, and need to be kept in mind when setting expectations about the distance between what is desired, and what is feasible.


  1. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/transparency 

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