Transparency is a good thing, right ?
We want to know how long our taxi ride will be, and even when our driver is coming to pick us up, so we get an Uber ; we want to know what a career looks like in our professional field of consideration, so we shadow a family friend for a day ; we want our government to use our tax dollars wisely, so they hire consultants to publish “transparency” reports that no one will ever read ; we want our dentist to charge we a fair price for our new crown, so we ask for a break-out of every piece of the puzzle, as we would with a general contractor, and underlying this all-too-contemporary quest for “transparency” is the presumption that man is rational and will use this newly gleaned information to make more “informed” and therefore more “future-oriented” decisions.
But is that always the case ?
Granting that transparency is a clear and calculable benefit in some times and some places for some people under specific sets of conditions, it certainly wasn’t so this past weekend when The Girl and I went to Canmore for some of that sweet, fresh, crisp mountain air.i Both feeling adventurous, and her, thanks to a recent spree of classes at Orange Theory, also feeling sufficiently close to her pre-partum levels of fitness, although neither of us had completed a serious hike in perhaps twenty years, we undertook Ha Ling Trail based on little more than some online reviews. Figuring that the round-trip was only 5.6km, a time estimate of two hours seemed perfectly reasonable and we packed our snacks accordingly.ii
Strapping on my Salomon SPEEDCROSS 4 GTX trail runners, the most outrageous pair of “panther”iii pants ever to grace the sunny slopes of Ha Ling, and my go-to “Virgil” hoodie, we parked the G at the trailhead and tackled the fearsome mountain confident that it’d be no more than a stroll. But after the first hour, we’d walked 2.3km according to my single-lead fitness tracker, and were still nowhere near the summit. Clearly, whatever version of whatever online estimate of the trail’s length The Girl had read and my GPS-based fitness tracker were in a fair degree of disagreement, but at this point we were committed to completion. So on trails made muddy by heavy rains the night before, across loose rocks that sent at least one hiker to call the medivac helicopter for rescue while we were there, with temperatures hovering around 5°C, it was a full two hours after we set off from the base that we reached the really rather breathtaking summit. What a view it was! A slightly terrifying one, if I’m honest, given the sheer rock face right behind us, but we made it.iv
It only took us an hour to make the descent, but the round-trip was still a full 50% longer than initially anticipated. Would we have undertaken the full trek had we been given full “transparency” ? I certainly would’ve packed another granola bar or two, but fortunately our underestimation of supplies just made the artisanal lattés and A&W french fries afterwards taste that much better. So in the end, we were probably slightly better off having not known how the sausage would be made.
Similarly, if Uber drivers knew how little they were actually being paid because they were able to accurately calculate their costs of motor vehicle ownership, we wouldn’t have the wonderful ride share services that we do ; if a single carefully selected day in the life of a professional were sufficient to convey the full breadth of their careers to a kid in high school, we wouldn’t have professionals at all ; if our government were actually transparent, they wouldn’t be the size they are and wouldn’t be able to render the services they dov ; if our dentist (or general contractor) actually showed us what everything cost, we’d lose the forest for the trees and start finding “efficiencies” with trade-offs we didn’t and couldn’t fully consider because we largely don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about ; and if we actually knew how long the hike would take us, we might never start in the first place.
In an era that pays so much lip service to “transparency,” we all continue to benefit from opacity more than we appreciate. To borrow a Tyler Cowenism, opacity is underrated. As rational as we like to imagine ourselves, we still need myth.
Really, what makes us think we can handle the truth ?
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- Oh, what air! ↩
- Had she read the official Alberta Parks website, she’d have seen that the hike was 3.9km up to the summit with an elevation gain of 810m. Alas, the “AllParks” app let us astray. Fuck you app! ↩
- Aka “Alessandro” pants, for which I received no less than seven separate and all-too-genuine “nice pants man!” comments from other hikers wearing the usual drably coloured MEC gear. ↩
- Alex Honnold, I ain’t! ↩
- “Wait Pete, are you like defending government or something ?” Wouldn’t that be suitably contrarian of me ? ↩