Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Transparency For Whom?

It had been quite a while since I wrote anything to be published under my byline, both for the reasons enumerated in my last entry and because many of the "hot-button" topics circulating right now are not ones I feel comfortable making public statements about. But I did finally manage to get a piece done for Souciant and, what is more, one that is pertinent to a subject that I have typically avoided like the plague, thanks to a number of very unpleasant experiences over the years.

I'm not sure whether "People in Glass Houses" ends up doing what I'd hoped, but am pleased that readers have had a number of different takes on it, since I was striving for as much open-endedness as possible. Since I have been torn between the compulsion to write about my mom and the difficulty of tackling such a huge subject right now, I was also glad to have a way to do so indirectly. If nothing else, the finished product does have a certain symmetry, since it manages to deal obliquely with my reflections both on being her son and on Israel.

I want to share a portion of the piece here in order to frame something I just read with interest. This passage comes towards the beginning:
It wasn’t until I was five that I learned how wrong I had been about the idiom. My mother was listening to coverage of the Yom Kippur War on the radio one afternoon — she didn’t watch much television news — when she suddenly blurted out, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Since I could barely comprehend what was happening in literal terms — 1973 was a difficult year for five-year-olds, with confusing stories about the Vietnam War and peace process, the Pattie Hearst kidnapping, the OPEC oil embargo etc. — this statement turned my world upside down. Although I immediately realized that the participants in the conflict couldn’t all live in glass houses, I had no idea whom my mother meant to admonish with what I now understood to be an idiom with potentially broad application.

I distinctly remember how disorienting it felt having to revise my conception of the world on the fly. Because I was the sort of child who tended to construct entire worlds from a single discovery, I had a lot invested, by this time, in my literal interpretation of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Indeed, it had evolved into an antipathy towards any building with too many windows. No matter how compelling such a structure might be, that didn’t justify putting its occupants at risk.

This prospect of total transparency was both thrilling and scary to me. Although I was not a stone thrower by disposition — compared to most boys, I was easy for my parents to handle — I still liked the idea of being able to take aim at the world from what military strategists deem a secure position. And the alternative, frankly, was alarming. What if someone could see the silly games my friend Mark and I played in the private reaches of our old farmstead, inside the crumbling rooms of the old red barn or out in the strange walled “garden” only accessible through its back door?

Although it seems strange to me now that I was troubled by such concerns, they were fully in keeping with the times. I was in pre-school from 1971 through 1973, when the anti-establishment paranoia of the late 1960s was matched step for step by the reactionary paranoia that fueled the backlash against counter-cultural excess. When you think back on that era, it’s a wonder that anyone was surprised by Watergate. Everybody had something to hide and everyone else was desperate to reveal it.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary in this case.

Anyway, I was taking a break from helping Skylar with her Spanish -- or, to be more precise, from trying to revive my Spanish enough so that I can help her -- when I picked up a recent issue of Monocle magazine, which has long both disturbed and fascinated me, for reasons I explained in a Souciant piece from a couple years ago. In one of the publication's reports, titled "Model Factories", I came across this intriguing passage:
It wouldn't do to have any secrets at Snow Peak, the Japanese outdoor brand. To describe the company's rural HQ and factory as transparent would be an understatement. Apart from the bathrooms, every room in the award-winning building is glazed for maximum visibility: the open-plan office, the meeting rooms, the shop, the factory floor and even the president's office. The conference "room" doesn't have any walls at all and has a clear view of what everyone in the company is up to. Everywhere there are views of the mountains that surround this unique set-up, which was designed by Taisei Construction. "We wanted a headquarters that really connected to nature, that related to what we do as a company," says president Tohru Yamai, whose father, a mountaineer, started the business back in 1958.

When Yamai moved the Niigata-based company from urban quarters in nearby Sanjo city to 165,000 sq m of open space in the hills two years ago, it sparked a revolution in the way the company was organised: no more individual offices, no more closed doors and no more colonising of desk space. Yamai is an admirably laid-back leader, whose one rule is that nobody sits in the same place two days running. Accountants, product designers and sales managers are all mixed in together in one workroom and the factory is just along the corridor. "This office not only looks different," says Yamai. "It has changed the way we operate too." Departments didn't always see eye-to-eye in the more conventional set-up but this way, "we're all in it together."
My first response to this description was very much like it would have been as the five-year-old I describe in my Souciant piece from yesterday, simultaneously excited and disturbed. Even if the bathrooms are exempt from the mandate to be as transparent as possible, the idea that secrets have been shunted aside by architecture still sits uneasily with me.

Part of this has to do with the anxieties perpetually in circulation about social media these days. And a large part, to get more specific, has to do with the fact that I've taught Dave Eggers' novel The Circle to my Critical Thinking About New Media course the past two semesters, pairing it with the "Panopticism" chapter from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and other academic articles about surveillance and privacy in the modern and now increasingly digital world. Routed through a revisiting of the discussions we held earlier in the semester about Immanuel Kant's essay "What Is Enlightenment?", these classes on The Circle were favorites of mine from a pedagogical standpoint, but also quite alarming.

I can't tease out everything that came to mind when reading about the Snow Peak HQ and factory's extreme transparency right now -- I need to get back to Spanish, for one thing -- but do want to flag some of the issues it brings up. Obviously, the idea that making what had been secreted away as visible possible is not a new one. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, conceptually, and in also seamlessly interwoven with the logic of Modernist architecture I touch on in yesterday's Souciant piece. So the initial thrill I felt reading about this place and what is was constructed to achieve feels a little misplaced, somehow, since it is only innovative relative to the backsliding that has left the project of Enlightenment unfinished. And yet, the ideal of transparency still has great power to compel us, as the opening pages of The Circle deftly attest.

Although I am willing to believe that Snow Peak president Tohru Yamai believes what he is saying in the Monocle article, I can't help but wonder how hierarchy fits into his "daring" business model. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing, yes, but not from a position of equality. The factory worker who is under constant observation from his fellow workers and his supervisors presumably has a different response to this enforced transparency than the managers who, despite having two-way glass walls to contend with, still have the authority to manage. But I should probably do some research on Snow Peak -- this is their American website -- before speculating further. For now, I just want to register how perfectly this account of the company's approach dovetails with what I was thinking about as I reflected on the idiom "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
Tags: clips, politics, theory

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.