January 16, 2007
The iPhone, Secrecy, and Excellence
Two households, both alike in dignity:
Radical transparency. Or, call it the cult of openness. I am totally an adjunct member of this cult: When in doubt, put it online! The whole philosophy is best articulated, I think, by Chris Anderson over at WIRED, from whom I’m snagging the term: Take a look.
The Jesus phone. Apple guarded its newest project with a level of secrecy worthy of Cold War spymasters. The result: an object of almost unimaginable sophistication and artistry. Oh, and a delightful surprise on a Tuesday morning.
Those two schools offer fundamentally different answers to questions like: How should we make things? How should businesses operate in the world?
So how do we reconcile them?
Clive Thompson is writing about radical transparency (for WIRED, natch) and he allows that not all things should be transparent:
Obviously, transparency sucks sometimes. Some information need to be jealously guarded; not all personal experiences, corporate trade secrets, and national-security information benefit from being spread around. And culturally, some information is more fun when it’s kept secret: I don’t want to know the end of this year’s season of 24!
But does that go far enough?
I will cop to being influenced by Nicholas Carr on this point. He describes my cult’s cousin, the cult of the amateur —
The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity.
— and concludes that “I will take the professionals over the amateurs” (though he doesn’t think he ought to be forced to make that choice).
The iPhone was most definitely made by professionals.
They were locked in a room.
No one blogged.
I’m mixing and matching a bit here. Radical transparency makes a lot of sense when it’s applied to information; crowds can be pretty smart. Nobody is talking about crowdsourcing the construction of fighter jets. So maybe Chris Anderson would accuse me of comparing media apples to engineering oranges. (Or is it, er, engineering Apples to… never mind.)
But it’s not as clean a break as that. Clive cites the relatively open development of Windows Vista as an example of transparency; a computer OS isn’t so un-iPhone-like. That’s a product, not a number of jelly beans in a jar. And cool stuff like computer-driven fabrication promises to bring the cult of openness even more firmly into the realm of the physical.
Before long, anyone who makes anything will have to choose between transparency and secrecy.
Back in Federalist 70 (oh yes I did) Alexander Hamilton described the virtues of the sole executive like this:
That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished.
“Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” I love that. And that probably tells you where I stand on the issue, for now: I think any realistic appraisal of the world — the wide world of commercial and creative endeavors far beyond these huddled blogs and wiki-pages — reveals that it is still those qualities that deliver the things we can be most proud of.
But I’m totally still grappling with this. I really am an adjunct member of the cult of openness!
For starters: Even if they sometimes work very well, do the potentially horrific costs of closed, secret systems (see: war in Iraq) rule them out?
Or: Does excellence matter less and less because it’s all about the fun of the process, not the nature of the final product? Is there actually no final product anymore?
Or even: Do you not really have to choose between transparency and secrecy at all? (I think you do, but I’ll wait to see if anybody pushes back before I defend that point.)