The Transparent State

There are two senses in which the State can be transparent. Unsurprisingly, both come from ICTs and computer science, one more case in which the information revolution is changing our mental framework.

On the one hand, the State can be transparent in the sense that it moves from being a black box to being a white box. Citizens not only can see inputs and outputs, for example levels of tax revenue and public expenditure, they can also monitor how the State as a MAS works internally. This is not a novelty at all. It was a principle already popularised in the 19th century, when the State as we know it was in its infancy. However, it has become a renewed feature of contemporary politics due to the possibilities opened up by ICTs. This kind of transparency is also known as Open Government.

On the other hand, and this is the more innovative sense that I wish to stress in this contribution, the State can be transparent in the same sense in which a technology (e.g., an interface) is: invisible not because it is not there but because it delivers its services so efficiently, effectively, and reliably that its presence is imperceptible. When something works at its best, behind the scenes as it were, to make sure that we can operate as easily as possible, then we have a transparent system. This second sense of transparency should not be seen as a surreptitious way of introducing, with a different terminology, the concept of “Small State” or “Small Governance”. On the contrary, in this second sense, the State is as transparent and as vital as the oxygen that we breathe. It strives to be the ideal butler. There is no standard terminology for this kind of transparent State that becomes perceivable only when it is absent. Perhaps one may speak of Gentle Government. It seems that the State can increasingly support the right sort of ethical infrastructure the more transparently (that is, openly and gently) it plays the negotiating game through which it takes care of the res publica.


Six thousand years ago, a generation of humans witnessed the invention of writing and the emergence of the State. This is not accidental. Prehistoric societies are both ICT-less and stateless. The State is a typical historical phenomenon. It emerges when human groups stop living in small communities a hand-to-mouth existence and begin to live a mouth-to-hand one, in which large communities become political societies, with division of labour and specialised roles, organised under some form of government, which manages resources through the control of ICTs. From taxes to legislation, from the administration of justice to military force, from census to social infrastructure, the State is the ultimate information agent and so history is the age of the State.

Almost halfway between the beginning of history and now, Plato was still trying to make sense of both radical changes: the encoding of memories through written symbols and the symbiotic interactions between individual and polis–State. In 50 years, our grandchildren may look at us as the last of the historical, State-run generations, not so differently from the way we look at the Amazonian tribes, as the last of the prehistorical, stateless societies. It may take a long while before we shall come to understand in full such transformations, but it is time to start working on it[1].

  • [1] Many thanks to Massimo Durante, Charles Ess, and Ugo Pagallo for their many valuable comments on previous drafts of this chapter
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