The Limits of Openness

It may well be true that we live in a society which is more open than ever before and where privacy is ever harder to find. I would however argue that there are good reasons for limiting openness. In a fully connected world, there are times to switch off.

Imagine that you were waiting to see a hospital consultant. You follow him on Twitter. Just before you go in to see him you get a tweet saying that "not looking forward to next appointment, delivering bad news". I can't imagine that many people would find that as acceptable.

Prof Steve Molyneux, a friend and e-learning expert, felt obliged to resign as a JP after he was referred to a panel for Twittering about cases he was involved in. All his information was public domain. In a poll shortly after something like 75% of the participants backed Steve's position.

I am a strong advocate for Open government, but also for Collective Cabinet Responsibility. I don't think that Government would be improved by having cabinet ministers tweeting live during cabinet meetings. I’m sure there will be those that disagree.

The proliferation of communications channels brings with it professional responsibilities for working out the etiquette and boundaries of usage. We are adopting the technologies far faster than we are agreeing what those acceptable behaviours might be.

Twittering from a jury room during a case should definitely be a no go area for me. The right to a fair trial should not be compromised by new technologies.

For over 25 years now I have been involved in meetings with Think Tanks, Policy Groups and others held under the Chatham House Rule. The 2002 version of this rule is:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

I have found this to be very powerful and extremely helpful. It enables people to explore unformed ideas or test positions without fear of being compromised. As a facilitator of meetings under the rule I have sometimes been required to explore positions that were at odds with my own views. A claim that "Chris Yapp said this" would technically be true, but extremely unhelpful personally.

In the last few years it has become quite a regular event for people to tweet at events or to bring a webcam and so on. For public events that I believe can be a good thing and is often promoted by the organisers of conferences.

Recently I discovered someone tweeting during a meeting being held under the Chatham House Rule. I have mixed feelings as to whether, in this specific case, the wording was breached or indeed the spirit. It isn't difficult to see how easily it could be broken.

Personally I prefer to take messages during meetings on my PC, rather than on paper.  I'm sure we are all familiar with people at meetings doing their emails and messaging. That is just bad manners as far as I am concerned. The problem is that the power of PCs and mobiles means that we can communicate subtly during a meeting unbeknown to the other participants.

So, how do we find the balance of openness and private spaces in the connected world?

For one, I would find the loss of the Chatham House Rule sad. I have seen many groups able to tackle complex issues and to bring their ideas and energy in ways that would not be practical if everything were open.

Openness is good, but I believe it has diminishing returns. I’m not sure that we know where those are or know how to find it.

I can remember a wonderful example of reduction ad absurdum from Edward de Bono.

Democracy is a good thing. Therefore more democracy must be better than less. The problem you end up with is that everybody gets to be consulted on everything all the time and the system falls apart. I'm not sure that a referendum on my Twitter network on what i should have for dinner tonight is anything but barking mad. The problem I see is that in this always on always connected world we could do it. It's just that I don’t want to live in that world.

All posts welcome. If you want to discuss under the Chatham House Rule that will be respected.

Comments (1)

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  • 1
    mgreen wrote on 17th Feb 2010

    We live in a diposable world and this seems to apply to thought. No sooner do I think something than I must share this with others. It does not matter that my initial thought may be immature, irrelevant or just plain stupid.
    I support new technology but only where thsi suports a business requirement. Too much is being pushed us onto us and there is no time to understand how we should be using it. I look forward to the end of the day when I turn my PC and phone off (unless I have a personal reason not to do so).
    Too much in government is decided on too little evidence or thought. Politicians and their servants have tried to get on the bandwagon without realising that cannot/should not try and capture the youth vote by appearing to be like them becuase they can never be young again. Twitter & Facebook have their place but not in the real world, only in the world of ephemeral thought and desire.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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