The Transparent Society, by David Brin

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Like The Humane Interface, I picked this up when a friend was giving it away. I read most of it last month, and then finally finished it over Thanksgiving weekend. Brin is asking an interesting question: is privacy a lost cause? And, if so, what is the proper way to respond?

His suggestion is that it is, and rather than ineffectually fight to preserve it, we should seek to create the best possible society in light of its loss. His suggestion is that we move towards a transparent society, where everybody is visible to everybody else. His reasoning is that if there is secrecy and stealth, those who are in power will benefit most, because they will be able to hide their lives more effectively than the common man. So the best we can hope for is that everybody is equally exposed.

It’s an interesting thesis, and it’s unclear whether Brin really believes it or whether he’s merely advancing it to jump-start a discussion. Regardless, I think he makes a lot of good points throughout the book, and I’m halfway convinced. Interestingly, Brin doesn’t argue for openness and transparency from a moral perspective; he argues for it on purely utilitarian grounds. The “keystone epigram” of the book is: “Humans have found one fairly reliable antidote to error: criticism.” He points out that science, with its tradition of openness and criticism, has advanced much further than any other area of human knowledge. He proposes that society needs those same qualities. American society has come closer to achieving this ideal than any other in history, due to its constitutional emphasis on free speech, freeing up journalistic investigations and various issue groups such as the ACLU. Brin advocates the promotion of “social T-cells”, “independent-minded persons who are well educated, skeptical, and driven by pumped-up egos to the point where their most devout goal is to find and reveal some terrible mistake or nefarious scheme.”

Other points that I liked included his emphasis that “those in power” did not just include the government, the great enemy that cypherpunks and militiamen alike fear. It could be corporations. It could be an elite group of hackers. But the point remains the same: those in power tend to act in ways so as to preserve their power. The best brake to prevent their running amok is to expose their shenanigans to the light.

He also decries the “Singapore Question, which proclaims that we must either be protected slaves or else liberated savages.” This false dichotomy encourages people to choose to give away their freedom for safety. He believes that the transparent society is an opportunity for metaphorically having their cake and eating it too.

There are difficulties with the transparent society, of course. Nobody among us really wants to expose all of their private lives to the world. We have curtains on our windows for a reason. But in a world where gnat cameras become ubiquitous, where monitoring somebody’s e-mail becomes as easy as downloading a freeware program, and where all of our information will be kept in massive corporate databases, there may be no choice. So if we’re going to be exposed regardless, the only thing we can hope for is that we can control our information or at least take steps to find out where it’s going.

Speaking of controlling information, Brin points out that most companies have a policy in place allowing them to snoop on your telephone calls or e-mails already, under the guise that you’re using their property. I’ve taken the step of creating a roving privacy zone, by owning a cell-phone/PDA. All my personal calls go through the cell-phone, so there’s no interaction with the company’s system. My e-mail is sent to my home account, separate from the company’s address, which I can either access through the web or on my Sidekick. Minor steps that could easily be overcome, of course, but it’s like using the Club when parking my car; I don’t have to make myself impervious – just harder than the next guy to deal with.

Back to the book, Brin points out that common courtesy may point the way to living in a transparent society. When we go to a restaurant, we generally don’t stare at other patrons or listen to their conversations. Even though we share a space, we ignore them and they ignore us. The same may hold true in a transparent society. I’m sometimes asked whether I feel comfortable putting up my thoughts on a public website. My response is generally “Who’s going to read it?” Most people that find their way here know me personally, and I’d have no problem saying such things to them in person, so why should I have a problem posting it here? And for those that find their way here randomly, that’s okay, too. I’m not a famous person or anything, so I severely doubt that somebody’s going to start stalking me with this information. So it all works out. And I could see how it could all work out in the transparent society. Assuming that we all grow up and learn courtesy first.

All in all, I liked the book. There were several thought-provoking questions asked, and an interesting new viewpoint was developed. I’m not sure I agree with everything that Brin is espousing, but I appreciate his opening up the debate. Who’s next?

Brin sprinkled interesting quotes throughout the book. A couple I really liked were:

  • The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously. – Hubert H. Humphrey
  • Men’s natural abilities are too dull to see through everything at once; but by consulting, listening, and debating, they grow more acute, and while they are trying all means, they at last discover those which they want, which all approve, but no one would have thought of in the first place.” – Baruch Spinoza
  • The phrase “mortally communicable ideology”, which Brin uses on p. 123 in describing the McCarthy-ite philosophy.

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