Frederike Kaltheuner: If Everything Is Reduced to Information This World Will Perish


A critical book review of Byung Chul Han’s Transparenzgesellschaft

Byung Chul Han
Matthes and Seitz
Berlin, 2012
96 pages
An English translation of the first chapter can be found here:

I. Introduction

No other buzzword dominates public discourse as much as transparency. Under the banner of informational freedom, governments, politicians and NGOs around the world are engaging in a rhetoric of openness and transparency. On his very first day in power, newly elected President Obama announced its commitment to “making his administration the most open and transparent in history because “transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing” (Greenwald, 2013, March 14). In Germany, the Berlin Pirate Party demands “free access, online and offline, to all public data, meeting minutes, reports, publications and negotiation minutes” as the precondition of all political participation (Piratenpartei Deutschland, 2011).(1)

Transparency, it seems, has become a magic bullet for the perceived deficits of liberal democracy. The more transparent, the more accountable, participatory, and the more democratic an institution becomes. In the words of the legal Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig (2009): “How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.”

Byung Chul Han’s (2012) philosophical essay Transparenzgesellschaft (Transparency Society) is a manifesto against ubiquitous and uncritical demands for transparency.Beyond informational freedom and corruption, Han understands transparency as a systemic coercion that seizes and transforms all societal processes. As a force that homogenises, Han’s transparency society has totalitarian features.

Those familiar with the English-speaking debate will probably associate a rather different work with the term “transparent society”. As early as 1996, the futurist and science fiction writer David Brin published an essay (and later book) about the democratic necessity of ubiquitous transparency. In the technologically deterministic spirit of the pre-dot-com era, Brin argues that society is faced with a dichotomous choice. The first option is that surveillance and transparency technologies will remain in the hands of the state and powerful elites. The only alternative to this Orwellian nightmare is reciprocal transparency, where the watchers are being watched and thereby held accountable. Thus defined, ubiquitous transparency is not just the lesser evil; it is a strategy against centralised, one-directional transparency by powerful institutions.

With this essay, I would like to introduce Han’s very different work on transparency to the English-speaking reader. In the following I will briefly explain Han’s conception of the term transparency and introduce three aspects which seem most relevant to the political discourse of transparency: Transparency and its relation to capitalism, transparency and trust, as well as transparency and the subject. In doing so, I will inevitably neglect the rich and substantial conceptual history for the sake of clarity. In the final section I will reflect upon Han’s contribution to the understanding of one of the most pressing phenomena of our time.

II. Transparenzgesellschaft

In the introduction of Transparenzgesellschaft Han describes his project as follows: Transparency does not merely evoke questions of morality or accountability, but rather it “a systemic force, which encompasses entire social processes and subjects them to a serious change.“ In a short essay of 91 pages, Han isolates “transparency” as the unifying paradigm relating prior attempts to characterise contemporary society, such as the information society, the control society, the accelerating society, and the pornographic society. Notable in this context is his style, which refrains from elaborate argument, but rather asserts.

It is important to note that Han employs a very particular conception of transparency, which at times contradicts the common understanding of the term. In its everyday use, transparency has a strong connotation of truth attached to it. Transparency is “a state in which we experience things, ourselves and other people as they really are, in which appearance corresponds to reality” (Marks 2001, p. 623, emphasis added). Han, by contrast, understands transparency primarily as radical exposure. Even though transparency may act as disinfecting sunlight, it is also always an exposing floodlight. Thus defined, transparency does not uncover the true reality of things, but exposed objects and subjects appear in a very particular way. The difference between uncovering and exposure might become apparent in Han’s distinction between pornography and eroticism. The pornographic body is exposed, exhibited and obscene. The erotic plays with concealment, ambiguity and ambivalence. But can we say that we experience the exposed body as it really is? For Han, radical exposure makes us experience a body in a particular way (here pornographic), but exposure does not uncover an underlying reality. Quite the contrary, the pornographic is deprived of the erotic.

Transparency and capitalism

Based on this particular understanding of transparency, Han establishes two relationships between transparency and capitalism. On the individual level, Han is especially concerned about online social networks where subjects engage in voluntary and cheerful self-exposure. Exposure becomes a systemic coercion because in the exhibition society, everything must be exhibited in order to exist. In that context, Han refers to Walter Benjamin’s and Richard Sennett’s definition of “exhibition value” as opposed to Marx’s use value and exchange value. The sole purpose of the “exhibition value” is to generate attention. In what Han calls an exhibition society, “every subject is it’s own advertisement object” (Han, 2012, p. 19, translated by Philip Schmitz). At the same time, this exhibition imperative itself serves the capitalist economy. Entire business models in the digital economy rely on the historically unprecedented accumulation of (personal) data. The more we share about ourselves and the more we communicate, the more data we generate. In the digital economy, “exposition is exploitation” (Han, 2012, p. 14, translated by Philip Schmitz).

Transparency also relates to capitalism on a more systemic level. Han argues that transparency does not only expose, but that it also homogenises. This claim might seem counter-intuitive at first sight. Especially in political discourse, transparency is commonly justified with reference to light, which illuminates and thereby discerns what had previously occurred under the cover of darkness. The Sunlight Foundation, for instance, is a prominent transparency advocacy group in the US. For Han this metaphor is misleading. Transparency does not enlighten but makes translucent. Transparency should not be understood as light, but as a lightless radiation. If everything becomes transparent it also becomes plain and unambiguous. By making things translucent, transparency produces sameness. In this context, Han’s rather peculiar use of the concepts “positivity” and “negativity” is important and should not be confused with a value judgement. Transparent things are deprived of all “negativity”, that is ambiguity, uncertainty and abstruseness. For Han, suffering, resistance or otherness is inherently “negative”. A society, which is deprived of all “negativity” becomes a “positive society”. By eliminating the unfamiliar and other, the “positive society” stabilises and accelerates the political and economic system. At the same time, transparent, “positive” things blend in accelerating flows of capital, communication and information.

Transparency and trust

The relationship between politics and transparency is shaped by trust and communication. Within the freedom of information discourse, transparency is often justified with increasing trust. In an open government people initiative in the German state of Hamburg, for instance, people campaigned with the slogan “transparency creates trust” (“Transparenz schafft Vertrauen”). Han is not the first to identify a contradiction between transparency and trust (see, for instance, Luhman, 1989). According to this rationale, transparency does not create trust it abolishes trust. Trust can only emerge in a condition between knowing and unknowing. Thereby trust enables action regardless of insufficient information. Because transparency eliminates unknowing, transparency equally annihilates trust. Rather than democratising, increasing transparency in politics creates distrust. Conversely, transparency becomes a societal imperative if the public’s moral foundation is brittle.

Han argues that trust only becomes a necessity in large and complex societies, precisely because complete knowledge is impossible. As a homogenising force, transparency is not only incapable of creating knowledge but is also unable to reduce complexity. The more information is liberated, the more confusing the world becomes. As a result, the transparent society has replaced trust with control. Proponents of radical transparency like Brin maintain that reciprocal transparency is a desirable alternative to centralised forms of control. For Han, radical transparency has lead to a much more insidious version of Bentham’s Panopticon. Precisely because there is no centralised source of control, “the inhabitants of the digital Panopticon think of themselves as free” (Han, 2012, p. 76, translation by author). The imperative of transparency eliminates any safe haven for the individual. It is in this sense that Han understands transparency as an act of violence.

Transparency and the subject

Han’s final contribution concerns the relationship between transparency and the subject. His main point is that non-transparency is a valuable and intrinsically human characteristic. From a Freudian perspective, the very idea that the subject can be transparent to herself is a phantasy. Only a machine is transparent and only two machines can communicate with each other in a transparent way. In this context, Han makes an important distinction between addition and narration. The human memory is distinct from computational data storage or memory. Human memory is historical and thus constantly restructured and rewritten. Stored data, however, does not change. It is merely added to existing data and therefore more transparent than human memory. Processes that rely on addition can be accelerated and narrative processes, such as a ritual or a ceremony cannot be accelerated. Imagine an efficient pilgrimage or an accelerated ritual. Narration, secrecy and concealment make human communication dangerous, but also constitute its humanness.

A chess game between two players who are transparent to each other would not only be incredibly boring but also deprive the activity of its gamely character. Secrecy is constitutive of the joy of playing chess, regardless of the fact that non-transparent communication is inefficient. And so politics, as an inherently strategic game relies on non-transparent communication. Secrecy does not just imply abuse of power and violence; it is constitutive of culture.

Han is not in principle opposed to the use of transparency as a means to create accountability, but criticises a society in which transparency has assumed a central role. A society that is afraid of secrecy or darkness, which deems all non-transparent communication inefficient, is a poor society. In the words of Han: If everything is reduced to information, this world will perish.(2)

III. Reflection

Han is a cultural pessimist. Not merely is his vision of the transparency society particularly bleak, but his totalising theory offers little escape or hope. This is probably most visible in the book’s final paragraph: “The entire globe has turned into a Pantopicon. There is no exteriority. It becomes total.” (Han, 2012, p. 81, translated by author). Moreover, many of his claims are not new. Han, for instance, is not the first to criticise online participation as inherently exploitative (i.e. Andrejevic, 2004) and also online surveillance has inspired a diverse range of academic literature (Lyon, 1994, 2004; Morozov, 2011). Most importantly, and largely ignored by the German reception of the book, Han is not the first to criticise the recent hype about transparency.

Lawrence Lessig, to pick one prominent example, spurred a debate about the unquestioned goodness of transparency and its supposedly self-evident relationship to government accountability as early as 2009. Attempts to liberate all data form part of what Lessig (2009) calls the “naked transparency movement”. Fuelled by the unprecedented technological possibility to collect, store and distribute data, the “transparency movement” assumes that more data enables the public to understand government conduct to better (or at least differently).

Comparable to Han, Lessig maintains that some form of transparency has the potential to foster government accountability. Against the unquestioned assumption about the positive value of transparency, Lessig (2009) raises three concerns: True ‘transparency’ can only realise its proclaimed potential if (a) it uncovers information that is in fact useful to citizens and (b) comes in a format that can actually be used. Even if the right information is “liberated” in the right format, (c) an audience needs to comprehend and act upon this information, which still does not guarantee an official response. Online data about the conduct of political representatives may in fact raise important questions. The answers, or the data’s meaning, however, can only be established in dialogue. If insufficient attention is given to the understanding of meaning, transparency can result in systematic confusion.

Lessig’s important contribution to the transparency discourse is admittedly very different from Han’s philosophical essay, yet it highlights an important contribution made by Han. While Han’s analysis is bleak and totalising, the all-encompassing nature of his conception of transparency raises an important question about the relationship between demands for government transparency, surveillance and privacy invasions. Even the most critical accounts of transparency, such as Lessig’s, have been careful to distinguish between discourses of transparency and discourses of surveillance and privacy invasion. This distinction is probably most visible in the hacker ethics of the German “Chaos Computer Club”: Liberate public data – protect private data. It is this distinction, which Han questions. As I have stressed in several parts of this essay, Han (2011) does not deny the positive value of some transparency to increase accountability. Ubiquitous demands for transparency and naturalistic slogans such as “information wants to be free”, however, form part of a systemic force. For Han, calls for transparency in politics and the ever-increasing exposure of (personal) data are part of the very same paradigmatic shift. This raises the curious question, whether it is in fact possible to oppose online surveillance and welcome increasing openness at the same time.

One cannot expect a philosophical essay to work out the precise implications of Han’s admittedly bold proposition. A critical response to his would point out that increasing publicity does not only benefit data collecting tech companies. The scope of this essay does not allow for an elaborate discussion of the political potential of publicity (see for instance Papacharissi, 2010). Nonetheless, it should be apparentthat the very complex relationship between capitalism and the emerging data economy deserves a more differentiated analysis. Similarly, the question arises whether online space is in fact as homogenised and uniform as Han envisions. Is it impossible to escape the logic of exposition value and is every contribution inherently exploitation?

Regardless of these concerns, Han should be credited for making a philosophical contribution to the current fetishisation of transparency and information. Scholars such as Lessig (2009) have emphasised two points: First of all, true transparency can only be reached under particular conditions. Secondly, transparency is not inherently desirable or valuable but can in fact, transparency be harmful. Han highlights yet another limit of transparency and information: Life itself, the essence of humanness cannot be reduced to transparent information; the game of seduction, eroticism, thinking, human communication and also politics is inherently non-transparent. If everything is reduced to information, a very valuable part of this world will in fact perish. •

Frederike Kaltheuner is a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute and has a background in Philosophy and Politics.

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1   Translated by author. Original quote: „Jedoch ist freier Zugang, online wie auch offline, zu öffentlichen Daten, Sitzungsprotokollen, Berichten, Publikationen und Verhandlungsprotokollen Grundvoraussetzung für eine Beteiligung durch die Einwohner dieser Stadt.“

2   Byung Chul Han at a lecture at Universität der Künste Berlin, 2012, translated by the author.


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