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January 16, 2007

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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.)

Posted January 16, 2007 at 8:35 | Comments (10) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture


God, I'd have been willing to trade a little openness if the war in Iraq had been run monolithically and near-secretly but executed as well as an Apple product.

I'm serious. Not only was the war cooked up by some pretty misguided (and misguiding people), but the more you find out about it, the more it seems like an open-source project gone all wrong, dragged into too many directions by people with opposed goals, beliefs, principles.

Rumsfeld wants to win the war with a third of the troops; Bremer decides to dissolve the Iraqi army. The army can't decide (or figure out) whether it's on the way out or staying for good. Part of the government rushes to put Iraqis in charge of everything, while another wants to run the place like a colony and give all the jobs to Halliburton and Bechtel. Some misguided idealists decide to start the plumbing and oil infrastructure from scratch, bypassing the people who know the most about the system and blowing millions on software programs the Iraqis don't know how to use. I mean, the stories you hear are just crazy.

And now you hear people like Richard Perle or John McCain essentially arguing that if they war had been fought in their way -- if the software and the hardware had been designed to work together from the start -- then the situation would have been much better than it is today. I don't know whether that's true -- even if we'd gotten Colin Powell's war, or John Kerry's. (Both of which, paradoxically, involved bringing more people into the process.)

Maybe I'm confusing the transparency/secrecy distinction with a pluralistic/monolithic design scheme. There are plenty of hybrid forms. There's no reason why a group of people can't be secret about their activities even as their contradictions pull them apart, and no reason why a single designer can't be open and transparent about his/her actions, even while maintaining the unity of what's created. Likewise, a collective can be very restrictive on what end-users do with their product, and a single integrated design can allow for a lot more customization and alteration. It's all about what works, and to a certain extent about what you really value: efficiency, beauty, universality, a chance to contribute something yourself...

You're right -- I think the deeper point is focus/unity vs. diffusion/chaos. Perhaps what determines which way you go is simply leadership: the detail-driven mania of Steve Jobs, the benevolent dictatorship of Jimmy Wales... hmm.

Come to think of it, Hamilton might be the perfect instantiation of a different model of transparency: the deliberative executive. For Hamilton, his best argument against executive-by-committee is that the ability to diffuse blame "tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility." (Fed 70) An executive needs to be able to explain what he thinks, the meaning of his actions, and to accept praise or blame for them. It might be a model of transparency more sympathetic to notions of noblesse oblige than say, the socialist hive mind -- but does that make it necessarily less transparent?

Tim as usual makes a beautiful point. Big clouds of people can sometimes be as good a way as hiding essential truths as secrecy itself, killing clarity even when facts are allowed to escape. See "military-industrial complex."

There is also the difference between art and functionality. I am somewhat indifferent to Apple's aesthetic and the general value of pretty gadgets, and so the believable idea that it required great secrecy to produce such artistry is not terribly moving to me. It is less believable that the specs required it. (yes, yes, unity of form and function, we live is the age of design, I know, I know. Since design is so strongly correlated with branding I am DEEPLY skeptical of all functionality assessments.)

Good point about art and functionality. But I guess I'd still make a case for some level of overlap between form and function.

I think of Gmail, clearly the product of a pretty specific (and possibly personal) vision, and how useful I find it. The open source webmail apps available at the time of Gmail's release were all perfectly functional but pretty ugly. Now some are starting to imitate some of Gmail's features -- but still not innovating.

Maybe it's that large, open, transparent processes are inimical to design? Or at least to design innovation? Any counterexamples?

I liked Scott Karp's take on this at Publishing 2.0. (

Here's part of what he said:

While I can appreciate how frustrating it must be for people ... with the skill and desire to customize their tech products to better suit their needs, they are a tiny minority. The reality is that Apple is not in the business of creating platforms — they are are in the business of creating experiences. The iPod was so wildly successful because it was — from the perspective of millions of people — a great experience, and the iPhone promises to be as well.

Gmail's a good example, because at least part of the success of Gmail has been in exceeding our expectations for what proprietary internet mail. This isn't just true in terms of storage and search, but also price and accessibility. The killer innovation of Gmail might be the fact that you can access your Gmail account from any mail reader, or forward your mail from the account for free (neither of which you could do w/most free web-based mail accounts). It's just that Gmail's interface is so perfect that the circumstances are rare in which you'd want to. If I could forward my Yahoo! mail to my Gmail account, I would never use my Yahoo mail again.

What we really want, I would say across the board, is for a single designer, or small group, to provide innovative and distinctive experiences and objects. Then we want the right to do whatever we want with them.

You guys are blowing my mind.

I am all for preserving the individual in the democratizing internet landscape; not only for a single designer/small group innovating for a free consumer population, but for every member of that population to be meritocratically eligible to join that group without hindrance. so if someone has the talent/expertise to contribute, they should be able to meet the incumbent innovators on equal terms. the problem with secretive/elite leadership is that people who do have the skills/expertise to contribute encounter obstacles standing in the way of their contribution. this is especially endemic in political systems, but I guess it works in companies too: managers don't listen to interns, for example.

also, I have a lot of faith in the ability of the collective to identify and run with good ideas, but I feel like the larger a collective gets, the more its collective creative input is democratically levelled out, so the end product is something safe, stable and palatable to all, rather than something kooky and without precedent. so I think that individualistic spark is very much still needed, perhaps with whatever levels of secrecy required to bring it into being, and what we need to work on instead is ensuring the ensuing transparency, in order that the rest of the collective can, you know, stand on the shoulders of these giants. the process shouldn't just stop after "decision, activity, secrecy, dispatch" -- it needs to go on, and it needs to head towards disclosure with the intent to improve. I feel like that's how the world works, anyway.

Sorry, I'm late to this party. Great thread.

From where I sit, the questions Robin poses offer another selling point for Chris Anderson's axiom: "a Long Tail without good filters is just noise."

Robin, you hint at this, but it's worth drawing out: I know of no successful open-source projects that are entirely open in their development. From Drupal to Python to Wikipedia, projects are led by a group of core developers who have exclusive power to curate the work done by all the lower-tier developers. Often, the entire process is overseen by a single genius like Guido van Rossum or Dries Buytaert. Without leaders (filters?) like those, the projects would fail. A lot of crappy PHP programmers contribute a lot of hacky code to the Drupal project, but there's a good system in place for culling the best of that work and discarding the rest. The quality of the filter determines the quality of the outcome.

The "open" or "closed" question is partially a matter of how hard the filters have to work. Steve Jobs happens to be an amazing filter, but he's also got an amazing group of core developers and idea-types working beneath him. President Bush? By most accounts, not such an effective filter, hence the chaos of Desert W. Storm.

All in all, I'd say the biggest factor in the iPhone's success or the Iraq War's failure wasn't secrecy or openness, but leadership.

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