Transparency and questions of agency

Transparency and questions of agency

Transparency can be understood as making visible the operation of particular processes and, by extension, offering accountability. It might be a requirement for gaining informed consent. Iain Bourne described the challenges presented in making new data technologies transparent, for example in describing to consumers how behavioural advertising operates. In her provocative talk Alison Powell explored the wider power relations that may lie within notions of transparency and argued that they must always be foregrounded. It is not the extent to which data is ‘out there’ that matters, but the level of control we exercise over it. She asks what can be made visible and by whom? Transparency may give the illusion of agency, yet whilst transparency appears to be central to notions of openness and choice in democratic processes, in practice there are complications.


Jacqui Taylor posits a positive case for ‘data’ and digital technologies, arguing that they have facilitated an incredible rise in the civil society, and precipitated unprecedented civil action globally. As she sees it, transparency may not be the correct word to describe these happenings, but that it can stand as a placeholder. However, how are we think of transparency and citizenship in cases such as Wikileaks and Anonymous? Here transparency does not stand in as a simple proxy for democracy. For instance, Anonymous are making transparent processes that those involved in governance would rather remain opaque. In doing so they are revealing information, but at the same time they are revealing nothing about themselves. Civic responsibilities to accountability (and transparency) seem to be something actors can forgo for some perceived greater good. Gillian Youngs turns this argument around. Using the case of Edward Snowden, she illustrates how a transparency that threatens actors such as the state can result in the deprivation of civic rights. Hers is a case for citizenship as a highly specific and embodied relation with the State.


In what ways have the increasing prevalence of digital technologies and the use of data troubled notions of transparency? Do the new forms of civic participation afforded by data and these new technologies demand a better account of transparency, one that recognises for the specificity of each case whilst upholding general principles?

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