With the explosion of the internet over the past three decades, access to past information has become easy. Each month brings more records online from every part of the world. Because it is now so easy to look up past information and data with an online search, events and deeds once hidden, rise rapidly to the surface.
While this access to information is considered a good thing in our society, it has also presented a paradox. The more transparent our society becomes, the more it seems like things are falling apart. It has never been easier to spot lies, document crimes with handheld phones, and in general, see all the unfairness in the world. There are endless ways to get angry over injustices with the world on open display.
I have written about a version of the problem with transparency for political leaders that are fully exposed on streaming sites even in Custer County. When politicians have no ability to compromise with other politicians part of the needed negation process breakdown as any deal is seen as weakness by rabid partisans. I first read about the concept of the problem with transparency in the essays of Umberto Eco in On the Shoulders of Giants: The Milan Lectures. The Real World Risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb has also brought clarity to the issue, “The freer and more transparent a society, the more you will hear complaints about freedom and transparency.”
Much of the world’s ugliness in the past could be tucked away behind the gatekeepers of information before the internet came into being. Take, for example, the USSR’s extermination and starvation of Ukraine in what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, which translates loosely to “Terror-Famine,”
in 1932 and 1933. Around four to seven million Ukrainians would die as Joseph Stalin stole grain from the region to sell on international markets. He used this cash to industrialize the USSR during the Great Depression. The forced starvation might have gone completely unnoticed if it had not been for a Welsh reporter, Gareth Jones, who asked a simple question: “How is the USSR able to afford all of this new industrial material during a worldwide Great Depression?” He flew to Moscow and realized quickly that all the journalists were more or less forced to stay in certain parts of the city.
Jones met Walter Duranty in Moscow, the head chief of western journalists in the USSR, and quickly realized that Duranty was nothing more than a propagandist for the communists. He broke his visa requirement and secretly headed to Ukraine, the breadbasket of the USSR. There he discovered the forced removal of grain from Ukraine and the deaths of entire villages that tried to resist.
Jones was captured, his camera smashed, and he was deported back to the United Kingdom. He tried to tell his story, but was largely ignored until Hearst Press printed it and the truth finally came out. However, he paid for his journalis- tic work and was murdered during an assignment in China a few years later in 1935, likely by Soviet agents. Even after his story came out, it never caused much of a stir in the west, with most newspapers refusing to print the information.
The famous Watergate Scandal is an example of one of the few times the spectacle of American power abuse slipped out, thanks to the dogged work of two journalists. But the question remains, how does one deal with “silent evidence?” How much of the unfairness of the world in the past was never documented, recorded, and saved? The answer is that the records we do have are but a drop in the sea of events that happened in the world.
The internet is changing much of that. In fact, we are faced with too much information, having to sort through fake videos, pictures, and other spam that is designed to get clicks. But what is remarkable is how quickly the ways of verifying information have come to counter the deluge of info that is now available.
For example, I have been following the travels of a high school classmate from Custer County, Colorado Karl Voll, as he helps rebuild schools and homes in Ukraine. He has used his phone and Facebook account to document and share his work and the damage caused by the Russian invasion. Compare the ease of information that my former classmate can share with me back home in Custer County with that of Gareth Jones. It was not until the fall of the USSR in the 1990s that the world started to understand what had happened during the Holodomor.
But the ease of the information comes with the price that the ugliness of the war in Ukraine now pops up on my Facebook newsfeed. The old saying is that ignorance is bliss, and the internet is constantly shattering such bliss. This is the paradox of transparency: it is becoming harder and harder to hide in blissful ignorance, and it can feel like the world has become unhinged.
However, facing the hard truth of reality also means that we as a society can make the world fairer. We have never lived in a time that can so easily hold the powerful accountable, where lies cannot be swept under the rug without notice, and where ideas for a more prosperous present can circulate widely. Pain is nature’s way of guiding us away from harmful actions.
Facing the ugliness of world can be painful. But that pain we feel also means we are interacting with the world more honestly.