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The Transparent Society

A Sociological Forecast by David Brin

J. Bradford DeLong


David Brin (1998), The Transparent Society (New York: Addison-Wesley: 020132802X).

For perhaps two centuries people living in today's advanced industrial societies have had a modicum of privacy. Before two centuries ago, privacy was nearly unheard-of: you lived in a village where everyone knew everyone else and everyone else's business. Between two centuries ago and the present, people moved out of the village and out to a--relatively isolated--farm, or into a city where the sheer number of people made relative anonymity--and thus privacy--possible.

But, at least according to David Brin, the future will be different. In the future privacy as we know it today will be nearly impossible to attain.

In the future privacy will be next to nonexistent because of the explosion of audiovisual, communications, and computer technologies. Cheap hard disks will allow people to collect massive information about transactions: who did what. Cheap cameras will allow people to collect massive amounts of information about locations: who was where. Cheap computer power will allow the sorting and searching of massive amounts of information in search of those nuggets of data relevant to any one particular person. And cheap computers will allow anyone--or anyone with access codes--to access what will essentially become the stored life history of anyone.

From David Brin's perspective, this change is coming. The only question is who will have access to the information that will be contained in the great surveillance databases. Will the information be "secret" and "private"--in which case only governments which may turn thuggish will have access? Or will the information be "open" and "public"--in which case we will once again be back in the village, where nearly everything is done in public and everybody knows everybody else's business: truly a global village.

Brin makes a good case that the technology will bring us to one of these two outcomes. And he argues that the first outcome--in which we try to preserve our "privacy" by restricting access to the great surveillance databases--is a very dangerous outcome. It is a dangerous outcome because secret knowledge is power, and if the twentieth century has proven anything it is that governments cannot be trusted with secret knowledge. The great tyrannies of the twentieth century flourished because their surveillance gave them control and their secrecy kept enough citizens from realizing what they were up to fast enough. The advent of modern audiovisual, communications, and computing technologies greatly amplifies the power of surveillance, and greatly multiplies the danger if it is not countered by a greatly amplified power of the people to survey the government. And popular surveillance over the government carries as a side effect a potential loss of privacy. Anything that restricts popular access to information about other citizens restricts popular access to information about the government as well.

I believe that Brin's book is not necessarily an accurate forecast. The futures that he envisions will probably never come to pass. And the choice that he foresees may well never be posed in the stark form in which he poses it. Yet the book is useful: the future Brin envisions is clearly one of the possible futures that might come to pass, and the consequences of what he sees as the wrong choice in that possible future could turn the twenty-first century into an abattoir that would make the twentieth century look like a Sunday picnic.

If enough people read Brin's book, or are brushed by the currents of thought in 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.

That is an honorable role for anyone's book.


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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