Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance


Sternberg Press, 2015



“Transparency is a tricky concept in that it is invisible unless it fails. Only when there are stains on the glass do we notice that there was transparency in the first place.”  


- Thom Bettridge, Metahaven


According to Metahaven, a group of writers, editors, curators and artists who make up a graphic design collective based in Amsterdam, Black Transparency is “an involuntary disclosure of secrets against a backdrop of systematic online surveillance, as large parts of contemporary life move into the digital realm.”  There is an irony around this, as the book points out, because those who are fighting to create transparency - whether they are individual whistles-blowers or organizations like WikiLeaks -  must often use secretive means or even enact their own surveillance in order to be effective. This is not the only paradox explored in Black Transparency, and overall the book gave me a deeper sense of the complexity of mass surveillance and Internet culture, which, in turn, enabled a more nuanced approach to my practice.


Certainly a simplistic conception of surveillance as the people vs. the invisible, all-seeing eye of the state is incomplete. We are now constantly in the process of broadcasting the details of our lives, both knowingly and unknowingly, and while there is surveillance, there is also self-censorship, as in the way that speech is influenced by its perceived chances to be Facebook-liked or re-tweeted.  Moreover, the cloud of social media and  internet information is increasingly configured to tell us what we want to hear, by conscious design, or because we live in bubbles filtered by our own preferences.


Organizations like WikiLeaks act on the idea that the release of information can act as a trigger for systemic change. The problem is, no one can predict exactly where the change will lead, or whether it will backfire in some way. Still, Metahaven argues that disclosures can provide context and counterbalance to narratives presented as ‘news’, providing concrete evidence for those who want to make a different case.