Transparency through opacity


One of the topics of my forthcoming book, The Glass Cage, is the rise of “technology-centered automation” as the dominant design philosophy of computer engineers and programmers. The philosophy gives precedence to the capabilities of technology over the interests of people. One of its governing characteristics is opacity, the hiding of the workings of an application or system behind a “user-friendly” interface. In an interview with VVVNT, the New Zealand artist and engineer Julian Oliver, coauthor of the Critical Engineering Manifesto, discusses the importance of questioning opaque, or “black box,” design strategies:

We must thoroughly extend our knowledge of automated systems and communication infrastructure and peer inside the black box. Otherwise, we are at a technopolitical disadvantage, and that ignorance can be leveraged to great political effect.

If you were to tell people in the local post office that the postal service had a special room where the mail people have been sending is opened up, [each] letter taken out and carefully copied, the sender and recipient of that letter written down and put into a cabinet, and then the letter put back into its envelope and sent on its way, you’d have a lot of old people burning cars in the street. But the same thing is happening with data retention. In fact, the term data retention itself is so internally opaque that most people can’t even begin working with it critically.

If I were to ask those same people in the post office how the postcard they just received arrived in [their] mailbox, they would be able to give me a relatively coherent description of that whole process. But as to how an email found its way to their inbox? They would be at a complete loss.

Silicon Valley, broadly defined, has become a font of Orwellian doublespeak, though it remains naively unconscious of the fact. It promotes itself as a purveyor of transparency and openness, even as it seeks to wrap the world in opacity. (Its view of transparency is that of the x-ray technician.) And it uses a humanistic, if not utopian, rhetoric, while pursuing a design ethic that is fundamentally misanthropic. Oliver’s idea of “the critical engineer” seems like a good place to start in challenging the status quo.

h/t: Alexis Madrigal.

Image: detail of cover of Velvet Underground album White Light/White Heat.

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