Monday, August 17, 2015

Transparency, Candor, and Discretion

Reading the revelations about the working conditions at Amazon alongside stories about officials at UIUC using personal email addresses triggered a spark of recognition.  The common denominator is the relationship among transparency, candor, and discretion.

If the recent New York Times piece about Amazon is at least substantially correct, it sounds like working conditions at Amazon are somewhere between a reality show and Logan’s Run.  The Times piece -- which Jeff Bezos denies is accurate -- suggests that Amazon uses its extreme secrecy to enable extreme arbitrariness in how it treats its own people.  In the absence of any worker protections at all, hard-charging people are chewed up and spit out quickly.  The system will work as long as it’s growing.  When it starts contracting, though, the fall will be fast and hard.  It’s one thing to put up with cruelty when there’s something in it for you; it’s quite another when the best to be hoped for is to squeeze a little more time out.  

Whether that proves true or not, the extreme secrecy about work conditions at Amazon are necessary for it to be as brutal as it apparently is.  

Management in public institutions is a very different beast.  Here, managers are scrutinized by all sorts of external parties all the time.  Emails can be subpoenaed.  People who have no awareness of context are entitled to grab fragments at random and weaponize them.  Managers learn early that certain topics are reserved for phone calls or face-to-face discussions instead, since those can’t be ripped out of context as easily.  Some resort to personal emails; others avoid email altogether.

The argument for transparency is that it prevents abuse, and that can be true.  But more transparency isn’t always better.  Sometimes a difficult issue requires a candid exchange, and thoughtful candor requires discretion.  The deeper we push transparency, the more difficult we make it for candid exchanges to happen.  And in the absence of those -- the discussions in which people try on ideas, discard them, contradict themselves, and fine-tune eventual solutions -- knee-jerk or formulaic ideas win by default.  If we can’t tell the truth, then we have to base decisions on euphemisms or preconceptions.  How that’s better is unclear at best.

Some of the loudest advocates for academic freedom are also the loudest advocates for transparency, and they don’t see the contradiction.  Academic freedom is necessary to protect the free exchange of ideas.  So is discretion.  You need the room to move, to misspeak, and to explore, without having every first draft on public record.  At least, you need that if you care about getting the details right.  

Too little transparency can lead to willful abuse.  But too much can lead to a self-protective vapidity.  In the private sector, the former is the greater danger; in the public sector, we’re falling victim to the latter. (Donald Trump’s early appeal in the polls, I suspect, is a function of his symbolic rejection of self-protective vapidity. He embodies candor without discretion.)  As budgets get tighter and public scrutiny more exacting, we don’t have the margin for error that we once did; getting the details right matters more.  

None of this is to pretend that, say, hosting your own email server is the way to go.  But it does suggest that using electronic discovery as a modern-day version of the thought police will bring diminishing, and then negative, returns.  Rejecting one extreme shouldn’t lead to embracing the other.  As a culture, I hope we figure that out before doing more damage.