[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
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
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
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?
> > Schneier vs. Brin, fight!
> > "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
((Udhay Shankar N)) ((udhay @ pobox.com)) ((www.digeratus.com))
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