I have written on and off about my ambivalent feelings about a society where we value individual privacy over collective intelligence. Whenever I bring up this argument there is a counter to the effect of “but we need secrets” or “concealment is a condition of civilization” (from this piece by the NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel).
While I completely agree that our society at present is constructed in a way where secrets and concealment abound, it still seems fair to ask whether that is necessarily so.
Consider the current secrecy around salaries. Most companies carefully guard payroll data. The rationale for this is somewhat unclear. Is it that employees would feel bad knowing the salaries of others? That immediately leads to several other questions. Are they feeling bad because of discrepancies that shouldn’t be there, such as one’s based on gender as in the case of Sony?
Or that employees would ask for their salary to be raised? Maybe leading to an “inflation” in salaries? This does seem to have happened to some extent with executive compensation which is in the open at least for publicly traded companies. But would that really be bad from an overall social perspective if it extended to employees further down inside a company? It might reallocate dollars from owners of capital to providers of labor but unclear that it would be harmful otherwise.
I think it is super important to question our assumptions here. In Sweden tax returns are published for everyone so salary data is effectively open for the whole country. The company Buffer has published how they determine salaries. These are important alternative models in which a lot can be learned by everyone from the data. For instance, open salary data will work as a counter to the rise in inequality between management and employees. It will also help close gaps based on race or gender — the Sony case provides great anecdotal evidence here.
Another example of the problematic impacts of secrecy is sexual orientation. I completely understand why any one individual would not want to reveal their own orientation, especially at a time when society is judgmental and there could be all sorts of negative repercussions (including downright illegality — just watched The Imitation Game, which is a powerful reminder). On the other hand, people being public about their sexual orientation seems to have contributed critically to overcoming biases.
So one way to think about secrecy is that it leads to lots of prisoner’s dilemma style situations. Individuals (or companies) would be worse off if they were the only ones disclosing, but if everyone disclosed (or at least the majority), then everyone would be much better off. In the language of game theory, we are in a bad equilibrium.
I am looking for examples and arguments where that would not be the case. The piece by Professor Nagel which I quoted earlier tries to make an argument for what he calls “concealment" that I find entirely non-compelling. To give just one example, Nagel writes "Perhaps after enough time has passed, the intrusion will be muted by distance, but with people whose lives have overlapped with ours, there is something excruciating about all this exposure, something wrong with our now having access to Bertrand Russell’s desperate love letters, Wittgenstein’s agonized expressions of self-hatred, Einstein’s marital difficulties." His concern seems entirely with protecting such private information and he doesn’t once question whether the very existence of these emotional turmoils was caused by concealment in the first place!
So here is my challenge for readers. Please come up with examples of / arguments for individual secrecy being in fact better for everyone involved. Original ideas and links to existing writing are equally welcome.