(Introduction for a talk to be given at the Royal College of Art’s Architecture Programme, 17 November 2015)
It could be said that we will soon come to see that the problem of corruption has been trumped by that of transparency. Led by institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, USAID, the Council of Europe and others, the fight against corruption, it has been said, has become a global effort. This is of course a first: never has there been a time in which transparency has been given such world-historical importance. A missionary of the unconcealed, this regime has set out to establish a unilateral global agenda to enforce the ethics of a single economic space.
Transparency is global capitalism’s answer to democracy. Depicted in shades of high Enlightenment, corruption appears as the sickness of society that ferments when allowed to languish in darkness; transparency thus aims to cure such ills through a theology of shining light wherever such darkness remains. Transparency, we could offer, is a program of total visibility—a multilateral effort to make all transactions, laws, policies seen, banishing those last regions of the world which do not submit to the rules of the game to ‘failed state’ status and devastating credit ratings. Such are the stakes in the debt wars currently being waged in Europe and the Americas, where the geopolitical asymmetry of debt coincide with uneven economic geographies of translucence.
Perhaps it is no surprise that transparency has also been at the forefront of contemporary spatial and architectural strategies, in particular, those which, in the past few decades, have built themselves around a general rhetoric of ‘bettering’ society. Transparency, we could say, has reorganized contemporary architectural practice, from sustainable architecture and urban programs, which include the strategic exposure of infrastructures of waste removal and energy consumption, to ‘participatory’ strategies which open the design process to the ‘public’, all of which, we could say, aim to cultivate a new ethics of space. This can be seen most acutely in a sort of second generation of projects aligned in their attempt of address the effects of climate change. From the ‘smart house’ to the ‘smart city’, new spatial technologies are serving the regime of transparency in a far more expanded field of intervention under a simple wager that if each individual ‘user’ or citizen is made aware of his or her patterns of consumption, total energy usage, and the problems in infrastructural maintenance, then society as a whole (a totality) will naturally work to reduce its overall ecological footprint. If climate change is an impending risk we collectively face, so the suggestion goes, it is up to each one of us individually to behave more responsibly to curb its effects. As such, the type of urbanism emerging today is constituted more through what might be called an assemblage of technologies of transparency than purely through a ‘spatial’ modality of reorganizing the urban.