Is Seeing Knowing? When Visibility Reduce Transparency

By Lars Thøger Christensen

◦ 3 min read 

We are arguably living in an era of visibility in which our communicative interactions with others are accessible to the gaze of third parties. Does this mean we understand our fellow beings, our organizations and our governments better? Well, not quite and maybe not as expected.

We tend to assume that we understand what we see. Yet, we see a lot that we do not grasp.

Increased visibility is often taken to represent an increase in transparency. Thus, for example, it is commonplace to associate organizational transparency with visibility management. Many writers use the notions interchangeably as if we automatically comprehend what we see. Such assumption is misguided. Although transparency has come to refer to a host of different qualities and activities, its original and fundamental promise is to increase knowledge and insight and, this way, reduce manipulation, ensure fairness and avoid power abuse (see previous blog). Visibility on its part merely signifies the ability to identify by the eye.

Although it intuitively makes sense to treat these terms as related, especially because they both invoke an ocular metaphor, they differ significantly in terms of the depth of the involved perception. Transparency, in spite of its complexities, absurdities and unexpected consequences when implemented in practice, continues to invoke the ideal of some deeper understanding. What is visible, by contrast, may arouse our attention only in passing without producing any further insight. The conflation of the two therefore weakens our approach to transparency and reduce society’s ability to develop more sophisticated transparency practices.

Visibility is not the same as transparency and may not enhance understanding and insight. 

‘Visibility’ has several related meanings, including the state of being visible, the ability to see or be seen under certain conditions, and the distance at which a given object can be identified with the unaided eye, also known as visual range. In all these senses, visibility is related to observation and suggests that the object in question is accessible to the eye and can be distinguished more or less clearly from its surroundings. While technological developments have turned visibility into a mediated quality freed from the temporal and spatial constraints of the here and now, the visible still refers to “that which is perceptible by the sense of sight”, perhaps augmented by other senses. 

What is perceptible to the eye is heavily shaped by contexts, such as norms, cultures and social structures.

In everyday usage, the notion of visibility is frequently invoked in a more abstract sense that combines sight with understanding. Notions such as discover, observe, notice, recognize, monitor, viewpoint, or perspective, for example, all invoke both dimensions and contribute to the impression that what we see is what we comprehend. As Brighenti (2007) puts it “vision is alias for intellectual apprehension” (p. 327). This belief may explain ambitions to uncoverand expose reality to the naked eye. Although such ambition is often driven by social indignation and a desire for fairness and change, major data leakages such as WikiLeaks illustrate that visibility may confuse, frustrate or pacify rather than inform.

The eye and what it allows us to see is a frequent source of illusion.

Leaving aside the possibility of optical illusions, although this is a quite realistic prospect in a world saturated with images, the gaze is a frequent source of blindness. While the promise of transparency is to help the spectator see into something, there is always the risk that the gaze is blunted or bored by impressions to the effect that objects accessible to the eye are seen through and ignored. Even when this is not the case, the lack of an Archimedean point of observation from which an observer can perceive the object of inquiry in its totality seriously challenges the notion of a single perspective on reality and thereby conventional conception of transparency as visibility. 

Without knowing in advance what to look for, visibility is likely to confuse more than inform.

While the gaze is obviously never “naked” or innocent, it takes a trained gaze as well as understanding of local norms, mores and myths, as anthropologists are aware of, to look systematically and to know what to look for. This problem is evident when we are invited to “see for ourselves”, but lack professional experience to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant material and events. When organizations of various sorts, for example, host “open house” days – a practice that is quite common in in all kinds of organizations from organic farming to higher education – visitors may be able to see a lot without necessarily knowing what to make of it. Here, visibility only makes sense because it is placed in a context of a well-known social ritual.

What happens to insight if visibility affects the objects we intend to understand?

In addition to the limitations of the gaze itself, it is well-known that objects of attention are significantly affected by processes of observation. While system theorists have argued that the properties of an object are relative to the observer, breakthroughs in quantum physics have demonstrated that even small particles behave quite differently when observed. The behavioural effects of visibility are likely to be even more dramatic when the objects of attention are human beings. In such cases, whatever is visible is likely to be shaped by power plays and image management. 

Visibility is a trap.

(Foucault, 1977, p. 200).

The very possibility of being observed affects the behavior of those within visual range. While Foucault described this tendency in the context of prisons, Bernstein has demonstrated how it affects work practices. However, whereas Foucault emphasized that visibility enforce self-discipline, Bernstein illustrates that visibility may reduce productivity because it removes attention from working effectively to practices of signaling that the correct procedures are followed. 

When impression management is prevailing, what we see are ideals rather than actual practices.

When scholars and social critics take visibility to mean transparency, they reproduce a deep-seated conviction that the gaze is a primary source of insight. By maintaining a close link between visibility and transparency, transparency is reduced to a surface phenomenon that only requires accessibly to the eye. Hereby, what visibility does or conceals is ignored. Increasing visibility may hide an object in plain sight. It may also dazzle the observer in ways that reduce the ability to understand what goes on.

The fascination with visibility needs to be tempered by a persistent aspiration for knowledge and real insight.

Further readings

Bernstein, E.S. (2012). The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57(2), 181-216. 

Brighenti, A. (2007). Visibility. A category for the social sciences. Current Sociology, 55(3), 323-342.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison. London: The Penguin Group.

Neyland, D. (2007). Achieving transparency : The visible, invisible and divisible in academic accountability networksOrganization, 14(4). 499-516.

Roberts, A. (2012). WikiLeaks: The illusion of transparencyInternational Review of Administrative Sciences, 78(1): 116-133.

Stohl, C., Stohl, M., & Leonardi, P. M. (2016). Digital age—Managing opacity: Information visibility and the paradox of transparency in the digital ageInternational Journal of Communication10, 123-137.


About the Author

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.


Source: Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

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