People and organizations often describe themselves as being open and transparent. Social media in particular enables one to see facets of a person or an organization, but not always the whole. The mind creates an image of the whole based on the collection of pieces, which may not be an accurate representation of reality.

A recent conversation with a colleague on reality and transparency in organizations reminded me of a classic book from architecture school: Colin Rowe and Robert Stutzky’s Transparency. In the book, the authors describe two types of transparency, literal and phenomenal, that exist in architecture and modern art.

“Therefore, at the beginning of any inquiry into transparency, a basic distinction must perhaps be established. Transparency may be an inherent quality of substance—as in a wire mesh or glass curtain wall, or it may be an inherent quality of organization, as both Kepes and, to a lesser degree, Moholy suggested it to be; and one might, for this reason, distinguish between a real or literal and a phenomenal or seeming transparency.”

— Colin Rowe and Robert Stutzky, Transparency

In other words, literal transparency is perceived and definite, and phenomenal transparency is conceived and indefinite. Making the jump out of architecture, could one say that something real is that which is perceived and definite? Can a mental construct that consists of pieces of the whole be real?

Moving through life, I find myself creating strong and weak bonds with different groups of people and what is real is whatever I am focusing at a moment in time. Technology in particular has helped break down the barrier between what is literal and phenomenal, and fact and fiction are beginning to merge to the point where some may not be able to perceive the difference.

In the connected and networked world, what I define as real is something that I can feel with one of my senses. I maintain working relationships with people around the world that I have never met in person. They are reliable and productive, but I truly don’t know them. Perhaps not knowing is absolutely fine in a society where technology has given people the ability to reach out and touch someone any time and any place. However, I believe people are looking for more than just access to others–they want quality connections.

For me, the connections to people and places are what define our reality and help keep us grounded in a constantly shifting world.

This article was originally published in June 2015.

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