Over half a billion years ago, the very primitive life forms that had existed for about three and a half billion years were simple, blind scavengers. But in an astonishingly short period of time, via what has been called the Cambrian Explosion, there was a sudden and dramatic growth and change in biological species. Organisms developed new body shapes, new organs, as well as new predation strategies and defenses to counteract them. How and why this happened, especially as if all at once, has been paleontology’s greatest mystery.
According to the “light switch” hypothesis offered by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, it was an increase in the clarity of seawater that led to the evolution of eyes and thus to the advent of this explosive change. When your enemy can see you and find you, and vice versa, the dynamics of those relationships change dramatically, providing an impetus for all kinds of evolutionary adaptation toward hunting skills, armor, pursuit, evasive techniques and the like, all driven by vision. Whether or not Parker’s hypothesis ultimately holds up, his approach makes great intuitive sense and offers real explanatory power, both about the past and about the future.
In the March 2015 Scientific American, Daniel Dennett of Tufts and Deb Roy of MIT, who is also Twitter’s chief media scientist, analogized to Parker’s “light switch” in writing about the society-altering consequences of digital transparency. Sunlight may be the best of disinfectants, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, but many modern institutions, including governments, businesses and markets, have developed in, as Dennett and Roy put it, a “relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.”
Digital communication and information access is (quite suddenly) lifting the veil around many institutions and sources of information that were once shrouded in mystery. The essence of this explosive change is transparency, Dennett and Roy argue, and it will transform 21st century culture no less than the Cambrian Explosion transformed paleontology:
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“We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age-old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.”
As during the Cambrian period, organizations dealing with the onset of transparency today tend to respond defensively first. It’s natural to want to protect current benefits when they are challenged. However, forward-thinking adaptation that takes advantage of the new reality is the longer-term key to survival.
The new transparency means that the balance of power between customers and those trying to serve and profit from them is unalterably changed and changing. Marketing could once overcome public criticism most of the time. The failure to act in the best interests of consumers could typically be kept out of sight.