Notification and Disclosure

Sooner or later, the analysis of notification leads to a consideration of disclosure. The two terms blend into one another in dictionary and thesaurus but we can make a useful distinction (useful, that is, for sociology of information purposes).

To notify is to inform or make known to a particular notifyee (it can be a large number of people — even “the public”). To disclose, though, is to release information without a target recipient. Again, the point here is not whether this distinction covers all the empirical usages of these words; rather, the point is to zero in on a useful distinction. For us, that distinction is whether the teller is telling because of a specific relational obligation to an identifiable other or whether the telling is more a revelation for all to see.

A further analysis of this will come up in a still to be written chapter on notification and the public sphere. I was motivated to think about it today, though, while reading an article in the paper about a new disclosure law (“Note to Civic-Minded – Prepare to Reveal Riches” by Alison Leigh Cowan) being discussed in New York by the city’s Conflict of Interest Board. At issue is whether volunteer members of civic boards should be required to disclose financial interests and the like.

The case brings up a lot of interesting sociology of information issues. The whole thing falls under the “information order” category as it concerns the social regulation of who gets to know what. The arguments for and against the measure (and the articles (perhaps even more interestingly) which boards will be subject to the regulation and which ones not) will be fascinating. What does the public deserve to know? What do (wealthy) people get to hide? What do we make of the way engaging with “the system” changes one’s informational environment (the same thing has come up recently in discussions about the private lives and backgrounds of politicians in connection with Governor Palin’s nomination)? How do we think differently about legislated disclosure and media snooping?  How do privacy and a public “right to know” intersect?  Etc.

The article suggests that “Albany passed the law because of a sense that public authorities…were operating off the radar screen.” We note in passing that it’s interesting that information about members was seen as a way to improve oversight of what boards DO. Another source added “What they’re saying here is you got to fill out disclosure forms if you’re an alter ego for government.” This resonates with something Gillian Hadfield and I have written about under the heading “democracy and the information order”: a part of our experience of the generic equality we are promised in a democracy is the expectation that under certain circumstances you don’t get to say to me “I don’t have to tell you.” The regulations ARE designed to ferret out actual material conflicts of interest, but to the degree that they “feel right” it would seem to be a manifestation of the principle that of those who are, or would be, public servants can be more powerful and wealthier than the average Joe but they don’t get to say “I’m not telling you.”

Somewhat predictably, this is exactly the sticking point. The city council is considering toning down the regulation so it requires only a short form that demands only limited information. The article quotes a former public board member who had experience filling out the current 32 page disclosure form:

“It takes a long time to complete and do a careful job, and it is a complete undressing,” he said. “I can tell you,” he said, referring to the slew of billionaires who sit on the Central Park board, “the members of that board would jump out of their skins if forced to file those forms.”

I think this suggests something interesting about social stratification and the sociology of information. Stay tuned.