[FoRK] The Myth of the Transparent Society

Udhay Shankar N <udhay at pobox.com> on Sat Mar 8 18:51:43 PST 2008

I asked David if he had any comments, and he sent this along.
Forwarded with permission.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: David Brin
Date: Sat, Mar 8, 2008 at 1:28 PM
Subject: Re: Fw: The Myth of the Transparent Society

  Thanks Udhay - see below:

 Written as a letter-response.  This can be re-done as
 an op-ed.

 In Defense of a Transparent Society
 by David Brin

 Bruce Schneier's recent essay* in Wired critiques my
 1997 book, The Transparent Society, and its argument
 that freedom is best-served when all citizens can hold
 each other reciprocally accountable.  He begins by
 posing an axiom - that a civilization based upon
 general openness would be something a departure from
 our present social contract. Something "different than

 Alas, that premise is false, right out the gate. For
 we already live in the openness experiment, and have
 for two hundred years.  It's called the Enlightenment
 -- with "light" a key element.

 How do you think we got the freedom that we already
 have?  How did we become the first civilization in
 history, in which markets, science and democracy work
 (somewhat) despite all the ancient pressures? One
 where an average citizen has some power to hold the
 mighty accountable?

 Yes, it's all imperfect and always under threat. We
 must swim hard against a current of human nature, that
 keeps pushing to re-impose feudalism.  But reciprocal
 accountability is the very reason we can even try.
 It's why Bruce Schneier and I can have this argument,

 Bruce says that The Transparent Society  doesn't
 address "the inherent value of privacy."  In fact,
 I've long held that privacy is a deeply inherent human
 need!   Moreover, its defense is too important to
 leave in the hands of state elites, following ornate
 information-control rules that are written by elites.
 Rules that never, ever work.

 People who never read The Transparent Society assume I
 want everybody walking around naked. Balderdash.  But
 it does take some mental flexibility to ponder how a
 generally open society will be privacy-friendly.  Even
 though it was a generally open society that invented
 modern privacy.

 Look around you. Today, the person who most-often and
 most capably defends your privacy is... you.  But in
 order to do that, you must be able to catch peeping
 toms and busybodies.  And you cannot do that shrouded
 in clouds of secrecy.

 Try the "Restaurant Analogy."  People who are nosy,
 leaning toward other customers in order to snoop, are
 caught by those customers.  Moreover, our culture
 deems such intrusion to be a worse sin than anything
 that may be overheard.

 Now try setting up a diner where customer tables are
 separated by paper shoji screens, giving a surface
 illusion of greater privacy.  But where peepers can
 press their ears against the screen and peer through
 little slits, with impunity. Which approach better
 protects privacy? Which have people, chosen?

 Schneier poses a thought experiment "...think of your
 existing power as the exponent in an equation that
 determines the value of more information. The more
 power you have, the more additional power you derive
 from the new data."

 But this is precisely the age-old problem that
 Enlightenment Civilization was invented to solve!
 Just take Bruce's sentence and replace the words
 "information" and "new data" with "secrets."   Which
 version gives you a worse case of the creeps?  If
 civilization becomes a cloud of secrecy (as some are
 now trying to achieve) that's when elites can really
 exploit disparities of power.

 How have we fought this?  First, divide the elites.
 Sic them on each other. Unions vs management, tort
 lawyers vs mega-corporations, regulators vs moguls,
 and activist NGOs against any power center you can
 name.  NGOs, our most recent innovation, let citizens
 clump in hundreds of thousands and millions, pooling
 their influence to use transparency and information
 advantageously. It's agile. It's wired.

 Oh, I can hear cynical snorts. Yes, it's all flawed!
 Especially when elites rediscover tricks of secret
 collusion. Still, if it's hopeless, how come we're
 having this conversation?  Don't markets, democracy
 and science work best, when all players know more?

 Almost monthly, we hear of some angry cop arresting a
 citizen on trumped "privacy violations," for daring to
 record an interaction with authority, using a cellcam
 or MP3 player. (On the pages of Wired 12 years ago, I
 predicted these would be called "rodneykings.")  And
 each month, judges toss out these arrests, forcing
 apologies and redress. Every single time.

 Bruce Schneier even cites this trend, swerving his
 essay from doubt into a paean for "sousveillance" or
 citizens shining light upward upon the mighty. Or... a
 transparent society.  How to explain this veer?

 I suppose he means light should shine in one
 direction, from masses to elites, and not the other
 way.  Sounds nice.  But who defines which other person
 is a dangerous elite? Won't the definitions be
 controlled by, well, elites?

 You get this circularity in most anti-transparency
 arguments.  "Light should shine on power groups I
 worry about, but not at me or mine."  And yes, that's
 human.  I'm human too.

 But look around the restaurant sometime (discreetly)
 and see your fellow citizens in action, -- mostly
 minding their own business, enjoying privacy, needing
 no screens or vigilant authorities to protect them, or
 make them behave.

 Sure, it ain't perfect. We'll still need protectors.
 There are countless quibbles. We've a long way to go.

 Still, please, consider how we got what we already



--- Udhay Shankar N <udhay at pobox.com> wrote:

 > This was posted to a list I follow. Comments?
 > Udhay
 > > Schneier vs. Brin, fight!
 > >
 > >
 > curitymatters_0306
 > >
 > > "If I disclose information to you, your power with
 > respect to me
 > > increases. One way to address this power imbalance
 > is for you to
 > > similarly disclose information to me. We both have
 > less privacy, but
 > > the balance of power is maintained. But this
 > mechanism fails utterly
 > > if you and I have different power levels to begin
 > with."
 > >

((Udhay Shankar N)) ((udhay @ pobox.com)) ((www.digeratus.com))

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