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"David Brin's 'The Transparent Society': My Thoughts"

It took me a long time to finish, but I finally completed David Brin's The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?. To those who know me, this is no surprise -- I usually read books by doing a few pages a day, if that. I read whenever I'm doing something where I don't have access to, well, a computer or a TV or anything equally wasteful. Although that's not entirely accurate... With this book, I read it while at the same time doing my university course reading load, and doing the same with Nietzsche, Plato, and William Gibson, among others. So yes, I do read furiously from time to time, although nowhere near as much as, say, my parents or Anna.

In my mind, anyone who considers the future seriously (specifically, how we incorporate technology into our lives) should attempt to read this book. I won't do a full book review, but I will say that The Transparent Society should be praised for the thorough and painstaking research to find past and modern-day examples to support David Brin's arguments. Brin is well-read and brings in evidence from many different periods of human history, from Pericles and Athens to the Cold War to CyberPromotions to the CDA. The book is quite well-organized and unites ideas and theories held across many centuries. It is a reference tool for what comes tomorrow. Most of all, I found David Brin to be quite influential and persuasive using a scientific, logical style of reasoning.

A caveat: I must admit to not being well-read in the subjects he discusses, so much of it may be old-hat to some readers, and also leaves me more vulnerable to the persuasion of his arguments, since I haven't read any counterpoints or critiques of his arguments yet.

However, he is willing to concede many points to those who disagree with him, making clear his role as someone offering constructive criticism to society rather than someone who has a radical my-way-or-the-highway ideology for the future. Brin spends a good deal of time considering alternatives from the more accepted theories to the most radical ones. He points out the advantages of each, although I admit he turns back quickly to listing disadvantages.

So, anyway...let us begin.

When someone confronts us with a possible upcoming way of life that, in his words, "may bring the realization of Sun Tzu's two-thousand-year-old dream -- 'vanquishing the enemy without fighting'", you MUST pay attention.

David Brin essentially argues that we need to be prepared for a society in which "reciprocal transparency" is the best path to take. What reciprocal transparency entails is a bi-directional flow of information between two parties, no matter who they are. This could be between two friends, a store owner and a customer, two countries, a broker and client, etc. This even includes flows of information on a larger scale, like public transaction records, surveillance of public areas, and unique identities (without full anonymity) on the Internet.

Sounds kind of strange, doesn't it? Especially since the sentiment on the 'Net right now is towards the individual's right to privacy using contracts with companies to not disclose information and the right for individuals to use encryption for personal use. Seems to me that most people I know cling onto their personal privacy no matter how insignificant it is. We on the Internet have been given so many hi-tech gadgets that it seems like we have weapons to fight The Man now. Meanwhile, it's easy as pie for someone to get information on you no matter how well you hide it.

Brin is not arguing that you give away your most intimate personal details and home to public-access cameras and companies that profile people. That should be guarded most passionately. However, the trend with technology is that cameras are getting smaller, computers are getting more powerful, and the elite, whether it's the government or more importantly companies and rich people, will always have an upper-hand on you and me, rendering our new tools less powerful and less safe.

One of the main points of the book is that you must accept that society's elite will always have more money and power and influence to change things than you will, no matter how strong technology and encryption become. Come on...surely you know that anything you have, someone else has something many magnitudes more powerful than it, right? You never know what the more powerful people have in their arsenal to defuse your meager public encryption key. You don't even know if they have a backdoor to the "security" you have right now. The elite will also always have it in their best interest to cover up their activities from others, simply because they can get away with it. The criminal element thrives off being able to get away with illegal actions and transactions. Just as the rich can push billions of dollars into small countries' banks, the mafia and drug dealers can scurry money around right under our noses and in the most run-down areas of the country. They do it because they can get away with it and because it's VERY profitable.

The solution is to eliminate shadows, as Brin puts it, and shed light upon the world. If cameras are on every street and institution and building watching everything we do, as will inevitably happen (and has already started to happen), then is it better to rely on the powerful elite to control those cameras, or should EVERYONE have access to them, to verify what everyone ELSE is doing? Do you really trust the government, military, mafia, other countries, rich people, hackers, and even street thugs to behave? How would they behave if they were being watched? And if innocent people were being watched as well?

Vintage Juvenal: "Who watches the watchmen?"

Answer: everyone.

Example. A prime one is having cameras not only on the streets of violence-torn ghettos, but also to have cameras in police stations. The police will move far more efficiently and judiciously if a signal feed is being sent out to public watchdogs who make sure no infractions are made. Also, people won't be able to hide behind anonymity so easily if the store and its surrounding alleys and streets they're going to rob are being videotaped. Sure, you can wear a mask and hide your face, but you have to give up some details about your identity somewhere along the way.

Another example. What if every transaction was made public? Yes, that's right -- people could see that you were buying a digital TV from Best Buy for $6,000. If everyone were put up to the same standard, and transactions were recorded and compared for accuracy and verification of the price paid for good transferred, would this not eliminate much of the fraud and underhanded activity that goes on every day? What if someone was overcharged? This would automatically set off an alarm somewhere and the transaction would have to be verified. Both parties must sacrifice the privacy of the transaction, but both parties also know they're getting exactly what they agreed to, in exchange for what they give up. Also, if all transactions are logged, and considering the fact that most all business will be done electronically in the future, what if huge networks go down, losing millions of transactions? Using the same idea of the Internet, the market would be able to rebuild itself in this way. If transactions were kept under lock and key like they are now, one company's database going down would lose millions of important records forever.

In many respects, we already have a good deal of access into our government. That was built into the system by our forefathers and by judicial precedent later. Most Senate and House hearings are made public, as are most court cases. This way, we can see our elected representatives in action, and they know it. They realize they're being held accountable for their actions. Needless to say, we still don't see EVERYTHING that goes on in government for one reason or another. If we did, then The X-Files and Orwell wouldn't exist so predominantly in our minds, would they?

The main term here is "accountability". What you do is for the world to see, in most all cases. You can't get away with much if everyone's watching. More importantly, computers can do the watching for you. It's more efficient, and the verification of identity and transfer is arguably more beneficial than maintaining anonymity.

David Brin obviously explains this much better than I do. You know as well as I do that I have no business writing books or book reviews until I A) learn brevity and B) learn organization. Read the book before passing judgment.

What I wanted to do was make this Soapbox primarily for reading after finishing the book because it calls to attention several key points and ideas that I had not given attention to...

First of all, Brin's disagreement with encryption advocates and cypherpunks for widespread use is important. He outlines the issues regular people will have with tyrannical forces, and very few of the oppressions that can be placed upon regular people will be removed by encryption. For instance, encryption's not going to help you one bit if a soldier's holding a gun up to your head. :P Encryption only adds secrets and shadows, helping people who have things to hide and corrupt, illegal activities they don't want made public. While encryption will be necessary for the purposes of verifying identities so that transactions can be made, and people can be responsible for only the actions they perform (and not for others' through mistaken identity), otherwise it does no good for us. Openness has far more promise as a way of deterring those with power from abusing and oppressing others.

To some degree, I have supported encryption without knowing the issues involved. I guess that I mostly liked the ability to be able to encrypt a file on my own computer with a relatively safe cipher so that others couldn't read it. Since when have regular people been able to download encryption off the 'Net? It empowers you and me. However, the book helped sort out many of the conflicts that encryption has brought upon us, and I think at this point that I can see its limitations. I can see the benefits of openness vs. encryption even in the way I use PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). I don't use it to encrypt stuff very often, certainly not to send to other people. What I use it for is to sign my documents so that I can verify to others that it's really me who sent it. Considering I have had several people post Usenet messages using my identity, encryption comes in handy for identification.

Brin wants to make it clear that government is not our only enemy here. Most of us on the Internet realize this already. The government barely affects us online. What affect us are the malicious crackers and companies. The ones who create worm virii that bring down whole corporate e-mail systems and the companies that collect our registration information and create profiles so that they can suggest products we might like to purchase (bleah, it WILL happen). Brin says that too much energy is spent trying to protect us JUST from government, when in many respects, they will influence us MUCH less in the future, what with the Internet and global e-commerce and whatnot.

Perhaps I need to reread that section again, but I'm not sure Brin had a solid idea about how to handle software/music/multimedia copyright now that MP3s and warez are rife online. He shares some ideas, like having people pay a small amount (a few cents) for each playback of a file, so that it adds up slowly for the artist, but not enough to discourage use... The theory is that invisible, transparent (i.e. it's done automatically for you) micropayments might be the way to get people to pay. But I don't know...the prosecution and reduction of digital piracy in the future is one thing I have no clue about. :)

Another good point Brin makes is that the Internet was created through utilization of the scientific method. It was created by scientists and the military. To come up with the architecture, scientists had to critique and evaluate different methods of accomplishing tasks to achieve a network capable of sharing information, highly tolerant and flexible against damage and attack. Brin argues that many of the most outspoken Internet advocates have forgotten the roots of the Internet, that what the Internet has achieved so far has been through openness and sharing information between different sources through rigorous analysis and mutual benefit. That is what the scientific method has contributed to science -- constant hypothesis, experiment, and criticism require pooling together independent results and independent ideas. Encryption and making everything secret online are only a step back for the Internet. Bad, cypherpunk, bad!

And speaking of criticism, one thing that I've only seen tossed about a few times online is the idea of tagging an essay or web page with links to criticism of it. Although the Internet allows for the proliferation of different ideas, it doesn't pit those ideas against each other in direct debate. You must go to two different sources just to compare, and they might not even compare and contrast in a way such that you can decide which one you think is more correct. Imagine a web site (like one of my Soapboxes, for example) that voices a strong opinion on something. Perhaps you can click on a link to a site with a critique. Or perhaps there'll be a rating of that site, determined by other visitors who have given it a quality/worthiness rating. Brin is quick to admit the flaws of this system, but says that he's trying to think of ways to put essays and ideas into perspective compared with others. The basic premise here is giving a reputation to a web site and balancing it with other points of view.

Capitalism has proven its success so far -- it succeeds by appealing to our own self-interest. It is in our own self-interest that we cooperate with and trust others, if we operate in a capitalist world. There is benefit to the individual in sharing between two parties. Trust is rewarded. Imagine how this affects our security, as well: if we put our digital currency or information into a bank or holding agency, it is in their best financial interest to preserve your loyalty and trust by protecting your information from criminals. If they don't, then their reputation is damaged and they lose money.

Isn't capitalism grand? As Brin describes a Wired magazine commentary by Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden:

"In the former case ["closed" route], nations turn inward, fragmenting into blocs. This strengthens rigidity of thought, stagnates the economy, increases poverty, mutual fear, and intolerance, leading to the vicious cycle of an even more closed and fragmented world. If, on the other hand, society adopts the open model, then a virtuous circle turns cultures outward, making them receptive to innovation and new ideas. Rising affluence and trust lead to growing tolerance and trade, smaller economic units, a more open society, and a more integrated world."

We must critique systems for flaws and weak links and inconsistencies. We mustn't give away our ability to do so. Open systems like Linux thrive off sharing the source code so that everyone may contribute fixes and remove others' backdoors. The source is for EVERYONE to see, so no one can put anything deceptive or underhanded in it. However, David Brin argues that our rambunctious individuality that many of us pride ourselves in (including all the Internet geeks and nerds who consider themselves the un-sheep) is the product of lives full of listening to propaganda. In other words, we are trained to be argumentative and proud of our individuality, thus we follow a herd mentality in that respect. Or more simply, when a group of people decides to fight the river and go the other way, aren't they just falling into a herd mentality themselves? Isn't that what groups do? This is another example of Brin making you think from different angles and perspectives. I enjoy this about him. :) Perhaps because it justifies how I've begun to feel about things: that I'm not all that individual, even if I try to be, because I still enjoy pop culture and I still have many preconceptions and assumptions that many others share. I cannot say I am truly unique. However, after accepting that I'm not as different from others as I once thought, I can at least say I realize where I stand in relation to the individuals and the sheep: somewhere in between.

The last point I want to bring up is Brin's assertion that we must accept that technology is inevitable. We're already having our privacy stripped away from us whether we like it or not, so we might as well come up with solutions that reflect it, and take advantage of it, instead of letting the elite pull further and further ahead in a time of the 'Net when we have the power to truly equalize things. It's thinking differently than what we've been trained to do through online activist propaganda, and even if you don't agree, it's definitely healthy for your mind to consider.

Give this book a read, dammit. I've read some cyberpunk before this, mostly Neal Stephenson, and it's funny how the cyberpunk authors somehow anticipated much of what we're just now coming to realize, and much of what Brin says in his book. They're years ahead of most people. They see the future of technology. Or perhaps they've just freed themselves from seeing technology as limited, when others still cling onto the belief that technology can only go so far (like Bill Gates and his infamous "we'll only ever need so-and-so many kilobytes of RAM" line...bah, I have 256MB and it's barely enough for his bloated Win98!).

I believe the Amazon.com reviews of David Brin's book are much better put than this Soapbox is, so please go read them. Ironically, Amazon.com's individual-contributed reviews are an example of the world he projects forth, in which everything is public, and even you and I can submit our opinions and critiques of pieces of information to the entire world. Amazon.com's reviews are accountability (admittedly without secure identification of the review submissions, but that will change) at work.

As for me? It makes me all the more glad that I view my personal site as I do. I make most everything about myself public (the most intimate details remaining private to me and my closest friends and family) to the Internet because this is how you, as a reader, critic, or employer can hold me accountable for my actions. I give my street address and my site has been around forever, so you know I won't disappear. Also, you know how I feel about things, so you can judge the content of my character. Finally, I lower the walls, not raise them. I believe being private hurts the content of a personal site. That's primarily why I open up. Being up front with things allows me to improve the quality of my own life, not to mention it's more interesting and insightful to you.

One of the Amazon.com reviews says, "If enough people read Brin's book, or are brushed by the currents of thought in [sic] represents, then it may turn into a self-negating prophecy: a warning of dystopia that by virtue of the horror it paints helps avoid that horror. That was the function of George Orwell's 1984." I agree; The Transparent Society is that important and crucial a book to read. Especially given the fact that Brin admits to not knowing the future, and makes it known that he is not writing an instruction manual for the future, but merely putting forth possibilities.

Such a level-headed, often concessive approach is a change from the norm of passionate one-sided punditry we've become accustomed to. That's a sign of an important book written by someone who willingly takes some of his own medicine.

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