Transparency is not the new objectivity, but comprehensiveness just might be

In a terrific post, Transparency is the new objectivity, David Weinberger argues that the hyperlink nature of the internet is reshaping our notions of authority. With everybody suddenly a potential author, the old claim to objectivity seems more and more trite and outworn:

Objectivity used to be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

Instead we demand transparency; to be able to “see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.”

Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

I think that this kind of “hyper-transparency” -where citing a book isn’t enough, but where a link has to point to the actual resource- may be an essential feature of the internet medium; but whereas it certainly is a necessary condition for establishing reliability, it’s hardly sufficient. After all, what leads to reliability is not the number of hyperlinks to the author’s sources, but trust in the fact that the relevant aspects of the matter have been adequately dealt with.

So, instead of objectivity, I’d suggest ‘comprehensiveness’ as a condition for reliability. And it’s a sufficient one too, because on the internet comprehensiveness seems more than ever to subsume transparency.


2 Responses to “Transparency is not the new objectivity, but comprehensiveness just might be”

  1. 1 David Weinberger July 20, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I agree that transparency isn’t sufficient. But I’m not sure what “sufficient” means outside of any particular context. Likewise, how do we know when comprehensiveness has been achieved? “Comprehensive” in an age of unimaginable abundance also seems to be context-relative.

    • 2 Thomas Hansen July 21, 2009 at 11:24 am

      Hi David,
      is it possible to decide what a sufficient reliability condition is outside of any particular context? Perhaps not, but moving from a particular to a more general level, we could look towards rhetoric for a solution. As a sort of “communication best practice catalogue” under construction since Aristotle, rhetoric has always been dealing with criteria for comprehensiveness. According to tradition a subject is comprehensively, or adequately covered, when certain of the reader’s expectations have been met. For example, if I read about an event, I expect to be told who took part, what went on, where it took place, with what, why, how, and when it happened. If too many of these questions are left unanswered, I start questioning the authority of the person who wrote it. But my expectations about the adequate coverage of an event are not mine alone, many people share them, and that is, IMHO, sufficient.

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