Review: The Transparent Society

Review: The Transparent Society

The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?
by David Brin
published by Basic Books
original publication: 1999
size: 913KB (545 pages)
categories: nonfiction; technology; civil rights liberties
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: generally good, but frequently references a couple of diagrams which are not read aloud
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

“In all of history, we have found just one cure for error—a partial antidote against making and repeating grand, foolish mistakes, a remedy against self-deception. That antidote is criticism.”
–David Brin
writing in The Transparent Society

In this fascinating book, science fiction writer and futurist David Brin explores how the increased observational capabilities of technology may cause us to rethink personal privacy.

Early in the book, Brin has the reader consider two cities.

In both cities, there are cameras on every lamppost.

In one, those camera feeds go only to the police, who can see everything that is happening.

In the other, those camera feeds are available to every citizen.

Most likely, neither one would make you very comfortable.

Which would be better, though?

What if the “all access” city included feeds from inside the police station? So regular citizens can watch the police watching the videos, and see what they do about them?

While Brin essentially advocates for “reciprocal transparency” (people in power can watch people who aren’t…and vice versa), this is no polemic. Brin says:

“If it seems at times that I am fence straddling, that is because I do not claim to have all the answers. While this book makes strong contrarian points about general principles of freedom and accountabiliy, the details have been left somewhat murky, because that’s the way life is. Despite the simplifying rhetoric of idealists and ideologues, the process of finding pragmatic solutions will always be a messy one.”

While the book was written some time ago, many of the core concepts are still true…and the implementation isn’t all that different. The book is pre-YouTube, pre-Vine, pre-SmartPhones…but it posits a future in which every citizen is “armed” with a camera. It certainly doesn’t get everything right:

“Ponder an image of everyone sauntering down the street with one of these “weapons” on their hips. Naturally, one result is a near absence of street crime—that is a given.”

This presumes that people are inhibited from committing crimes by fear of exposure as the criminal. I remember seeing videos of bank robbers making sure their faces are seen by security cameras…as part of an initiation into a criminal group. The camera didn’t prevent the crime, and arguably, that specific crime is that specific place was committed to get on the camera.

That makes the book no less valuable, though. Thinking about how we will deal with universal knowledge of everything we do is important.

I thought one of the most thought-provoking parts of the book was peripheral (although related) to surveillance and privacy.

“The characters we find admirable in books and films often exhibit driven individualism and have difficulty accepting regimentation by formal organizations. They are irked by rules and routines, and above all display suspicion of authority. This archetype is copied in such endless profusion that the “lonely rebel” might by now have become the most dreadful of clichés. But in fact, it seems to have escaped the notice of most social observers that the principal moral lesson carried by neo-Western media is scorn for stodgy establishments of any stripe.”

The idea here is that people in our “neo-Western” society have been propagandized by media into believing that rebellion against the establishment is the way to succeed…and that the preponderance of this message is largely unprecedented.

I had to really think about that one.

Do so many of us think it’s good to be different because that is what our entertainment has been telling us?

We cheer when the lone hero disobeys orders…and saves the day.

Is it just, perhaps, because our society is freer somehow, and we are expressing what people have always felt? Or, does our society really feel  differently about this?

If you enjoy media from other cultures, you’ll know that this reverence of anti-authoritarianism isn’t universal. You’ll be able to come up with examples where the “hero” can only succeed by supporting the group and sublimating personal desires.

While we could discuss this for hours, it’s only one of the concepts in the book that will get you going.

Does it get too technical? Sure, I’d say there is a lot more discussion of encryption than some people will want.

I think the biggest flaw in the book for me, and this may be influenced by Brin being a scientist, is a feeling that once something has been explained, it doesn’t need to be explained again.

As a trainer, I can assure that’s not the case.

For example, there may be a matrix of possibilities shown (and unfortunately, not able to be read aloud by text-to-speech, which is how I consumed most of the book). Let’s say it went something like this:

  1. Cats who like cats
  2. Dogs who like dogs
  3. Cats who like dogs
  4. Dogs who like cats

Later, when Brin is referencing this list, the author doesn’t say, “So, in the case of dogs who like cats”, but will just say, “In point four…” That’s true even if we got the list five chapters ago. It would simply be better, in my opinion, to reiterate the relevant factors, rather than assuming that everybody has the sort of memory for diagrams and variables that many scientists do.

That doesn’t change me recommending the book, though. No, not everybody will enjoy it, but if you like to think about possible reactions to inevitable realities, this is one you should put on your list…whether everyone can see your list or not. ;)

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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8 Responses to “Review: The Transparent Society”

  1. Connie Abbitt Says:

    I see it as individualism, necessary for freedom, following one’s own inspiration, versus group think, herd mentality, which may seem safe but is not if one should have an original idea. That is the essence of American exceptionalism, though certainly not confined to America.
    I like the idea of being able to watch the watchers. If we are not to be allowed to mind our own business, then that is an absolute neccessity. One should never trust the watchers!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Connie!

      I’m sure most Americans would agree with you…we conform to the herd mentality that herd mentality is bad. ;) The question is, why do we think that? Is it because it is intrinsically true, or because we have watched and read so many stories that tell us it is true? Whether true or not, why does so much of our pop culture promote this, when many cultures don’t?

      I made the mistake at first as reading the argument as being just for the USA, but it is for what Brin references as “neo-Western” cultures.

      That phrase, often translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” is from Juvenal, a Roman satirist (“…quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”) It didn’t really have its current connotation of citizens watching those in power, but it shows that at least a connected concept has been around for centuries. Brin makes a strong case for reciprocal transparency…part of the argument is that there will be no way to prevent the powerful (both government and others) from having access to advanced surveillance. Restricting it won’t prevent its use…making it widely available to everybody might guide its use.

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  3. Connie Abbitt Says:

    My thought was that the herd mentality might be okay unless one has an original idea. Then that one must be forced out of the herd or killed.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Connie!

      There’s where it gets interesting. :) If that is the case, then why would our media promote going against the herd mentality, and why do we believe the media? I should be clear, I’m a big fan of diverse ideas…and in a capitalistic society, sometimes, they can lead to success. However, they probably also frequently contribute to failing (as society measures success, including income and happiness).

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