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I often hear and read people using the word transparent in sentences like the following:

  1. The change of senior management in our company should be transparent to our customers.
  2. We should be transparent to our customers about the source of cost escalations.

I have understood the word transparent to mean something which is clearly visible or not hidden. Sentence 2 above follows this interpretation, but sentence 1 seems to be using it to actually mean "opaque" (The change of senior management should not make any difference to our customers, or in other words, it shouldn't be "visible" to our customers.)

Which of these interpretations is correct, and why is it used in confusing ways like this?

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6 Answers 6

For both an acknowledgment of the counterintuitive meaning and an example of the confusion it causes, just head to Wikipedia's article for Transparency (human-computer interaction):

Any change in a computing system, such as new feature or new component, is transparent if the system after change adheres to previous external interface as much as possible while changing its internal behaviour. The purpose is to shield from change all systems (or human users) on the other end of the interface. Confusingly, the term refers to overall invisibility of the component, it does not refer to visibility of component's internals (as in white box or open system).

Other editors object to this as doublespeak and an improper use of the term, so they've flagged the article as factually disputed. You can see a lot of discussion arguing back and forth, as some users apparently reject the meaning that transparent has clearly taken on. But the user at 24.144.124.84 describes both meanings:

At times, transparent is used in the sense that glass is transparent. The details behind the "transparent" glass are clearly visible.

Yet, transparent can also mean the details are obfuscated to avoid confusion. We use this sense when we say, "transparent to the user." In other words, the user enjoys the benefits of a particular function without being aware of how it is accomplished.

In a way, you can think of the details themselves as transparent, i.e. the user "sees through" them as through glass.

I bolded the key explanations above, because I think they accurately describe the way transparent is being used. In one sense, the system as a whole is transparent (you can see how its internals work). In the other, the component is transparent—in this case, that component is the process of changing senior management, and because it is transparent (invisible, really) it doesn't affect the way the customer sees the system as a whole (the company).

Somehow, most people understand which sense is meant, despite the two apparently opposite meanings. Confusing? Probably. But that's English for you.

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Thanks for the detailed explanation. I do usually understand from the context which sense is used, but there are some cases where there is not enough context, and it is a problem. The incident that got me thinking is the following "question" in a test: (paraphrased) Is the following statement true or false? "User threads are transparent to the kernel." It is impossible to figure out which sense is intended, unless you can read the author's mind. :) –  Happy Feb 18 at 18:31

The word "transparent" is one of those curious words that not only has multiple definitions, but has definitions that are essentially opposite. It can mean "invisible", or it can also mean "plainly visible".

In your sentence #1, it is being used to mean "invisible". In sentence #2 it is being used to mean "plainly visible".

There are a few other words like this in English. Two fairly well known examples are:

"cleave": This can mean "stick together" or "cut apart". We normally distinguish based on the prepositions it is used with. "A husband should cleave to his wife" -- he should stick to her. "He cleaved the wood in half with one blow of the ax" -- he broke it into two pieces.

"fast": Can mean "moving rapidly" or can mean "securely tied". "I pushed on the gas pedal and the car went very fast." Versus: "I tied the not fast." I once came across the sentence, "The boat is fast." Does this mean that it is moving rapidly through the water? Or that it is tied securely to the dock? You must have more context to tell.

"Transparent" may be one of the worst cases as there are no surrounding words which by convention determine the meaning. You can only tell from the overall context.

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Transparent always means "invisible" -- it's just not always clear what's supposed to be invisible from context. Regarding having a fast boat, the sentence you propose to have two meanings only has one; the boat can travel at rapid speed. If you want to say that it was tied to something you should have said "The boat has been fastened", "The boat is fastened" or similar. Equal amount of context -- completely different sentences. –  Clearer Feb 19 at 9:12
    
@Clearer When the president declared, "My administration will be the most transparent in history", do you think he meant that his administration would be invisible? Everyone understood him to mean exactly the opposite: that the decision-making process of his administration would be plainly visible. (Maybe the REALITY is that the decision-making process would be completely hidden from the public, but that is surely not what he meant in his speech. :-) –  Jay Feb 19 at 14:32
    
People routinely say, "The knot is tied fast", or "The knot is fast." So okay, it's a bit of a stretch to say "The boat is fast" could mean tied securely. But it could mean that in context. "Have you tied the boat securely to the dock, Gilligan?" "Aye, Skipper. The boat is fast." –  Jay Feb 19 at 14:33
    
RE fast: See this page, thefreedictionary.com/fast, definition #1 and definition #10. RE transparent, See thefreedictionary.com/transparent. Look at the third block, the one from Random House, definitions #1 and #3 (invisible) and defintiions #5 and #6 (easily seen). –  Jay Feb 19 at 14:39

Transparent means you can see through it.

1) The customers don't see any change caused by the change of management. The change is transparent.

2) We should be transparent means the customers can see the reasons for the cost escalations. They are saying that they will not hide the reasons hoping that if the customers see the reasons then they will accept the cost escalations.

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1) is a bit subtle here, and could be interpreted in two ways. The change of senior management (the fact that the people or structure are new) is plainly visible to customers, with nothing hidden, OR it means that customers should simply not notice any effect on the business or on customer relations, or even necessarily be aware that the change happened. The first sense is more commonly used, especially for corporate governance and accountability, something of great interest since the Financial Meltdown. –  Phil Perry Mar 28 at 17:36

I think you are misunderstanding sentence (1). That is, I think the word "transparent" means the same thing in that sentence as sentence (2), and is the opposite of opaque. (So sentence (1) means: our customers should clearly see the change in senior management.)

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No, I am not. The point is that the change in senior management shouldn't have make any difference to the business operations of the customers (for example, in terms of service quality). From the context, I am pretty sure this is what it means. There are plenty of other examples where it is used in this sense. –  Happy Feb 18 at 18:06
1  
If you want a sentence that means what you're saying (that the change should have no visible effect to customers), a better word might be "seamless". "Transparent" here means just that -- we make no effort to hide the change in management from our customers. –  Roger Feb 18 at 18:21
    
interesting - I had never heard this other meaning. I don't like it! I think it is doublespeak. –  hunter Feb 19 at 10:05

If it helps, you can think of the option-1-style usage like this:

before: Customer ---> "Company" (the customer sees the company in a particular way)

after, possibility 1: Customer ---> [Change of Management] ---> "COMPany!?" (looks different because of the management change)

after, possibility 2: Customer ---> [Change of Management] ---> "Company" (looks the same to the customer as it did in the "before" image)

In possibility 1, the "Change of Management" that got inserted causes the customer's perception of the Company to change, as if you'd dropped a sheet of colored glass with bubbles and irregularities between them.

In possibility 2, the change of management does not cause the customer's view to change; they continue to see the company as they always did, just like if you dropped a sheet of perfectly transparent glass between the customer and the company. So the change, like the sheet of glass, is transparent; even when it's there, the view doesn't look different.

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Have you ever seen a glass door that was so clean you almost bumped into it, not realizing it was closed? In this context, think of transparent as being like a sheet of glass – it's not visible. So, transparent means that the changes should not be noticeable or detectable.

You are correct in noting that transparent can function as an autoantonym, that is, it can be thought of as a word that is an antonym of itself. In one sense, transparent means "unconcealed; open for everyone to see, with nothing to hide." However, in another sense, it can mean "unnoticeable or undetectable," particularly in the realm of computing.

Most dictionaries list a meaning that relates to "unconcealed". For example, Macmillan says:

A transparent process, activity, or organization does not try to keep anything secret

To find a dictionary definition meaning "unnoticeable", though, I had to go to a more specialized reference, the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia:

Refers to a change in hardware or software that, after installation, causes no noticeable change in operation. Also known as "feature transparency."

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