In an oxymoron melding ‘revelatus’ and ‘absconditus’, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the ‘Disclosure Paradigm’ in his essay ‘Open Secrets’ (featured in his book ‘What the Dog Saw’). Sometimes ‘full disclosure’ is the best way to hide something.

He illustrates the concept with Enron (a gold mine of lessons on leadership, management, failure and now black box complexity)…

“To provide…reassurance, the company gives its lenders and partners very detailed information about a specific portion of its business. And the more certainty a company creates for the lender—the more guarantees and safeguards and explanations it writes into the deal—the less comprehensible the transaction becomes to outsiders. Schwarcz writes that Enron’s disclosure was ‘necessarily imperfect.’ You can try to make financial transactions understandable by simplifying them, in which case you run the risk of smoothing over some of their potential risks, or you can try to disclose every potential pitfall, in which case you’ll make the disclosure so unwieldy that no one will be able to understand it. To Schwarcz, all Enron proves is that in an age of increasing financial complexity the ‘disclosure paradigm’—the idea that the more a company tells us about its business, the better off we are—has become an anachronism.”

In the boardroom battles of out manoeuvring your rivals for resources, Microsoft colleagues used to call such monster decks of numbers and charts ‘data grenades’. What masqueraded as incredibly well researched and analysed plans, turned out to be using piles of tables and graphs to hide it underlying weaknesses.

Gladwell makes the semantic distinction between ‘puzzles’ (things hard to understand because of lack of information) and ‘mysteries’ (things hard to understand because of too much information and complexity). Puzzles still exist, but it is mysteries that are the emerging challenge…

“With the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Treverton and others have argues that the situation facing the intelligence community has turned upside down. Now most of the world is open, not closed. Intelligence officers aren’t dependent on scraps from spies. They are inundated with information…In a post-Cold War world of ‘openly available information,’ [Admiral Bobby R.] Inman said, ‘what you need are observers of the religions, cultures of the countries they’re observing.’ Inman thought we needed fewer spies and more slightly batty geniuses.”

Gladwell provides a number of examples in history where apparently inscrutably buried secrets were ‘hidden’ completely out in the open (eg. Nazi Germany’s V1 rocket development). The whole analysis reminds me of the final scene of ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ when they ‘hide’ the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ not is some vault protected by a dozen layers of booby traps, mazes and curses, but in a simple government warehouse.

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