The Transparent Society, David Brin

Perseus Books, 1998 (1999 reprint), 377 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7382-0144-8

Imagine two cities in which cameras are installed in every public area. The only difference is who controls the camera: City Number One has cameras accessible only by the police force. City Number Two has cameras easily accessible by everyone. City Number Two even has cameras installed inside the Police stations! Which city would you rather live in?

This, in a nutshell, is the main argument of David Brin’s The Transparent Society: modern information technology cannot be stopped and our only choice is to learn to live with them openly. This lucid and thought-provoking work explores the new possibilities and dangers of the information age and comes out with a set of opinions at odds with everyone else, yet curiously reasonable.

David Brin is no stranger to odd ideas. An astrophysicist by formation and science-fiction writer by trade, Brin’s novels include new concepts and fancy extrapolations by the truckload. With this book, he polishes off a few pet notions, integrates new material, backs it up with some research and enlivens everything with a prose forged in the merciless arena of escapist entertainment. The result is very, very good.

To be fair, The Transparent Society is not only a book about privacy versus accountability, but also a fascinating techno-social study of neo-western civilization. Fans of Brin’s previous writings will recognize an attempt to consolidate and strengthen his earlier themes. The concept of “social T-cells” alone is a meme that should spread far and wide.

One of Brin’s biggest strengths is that, even while exhorting a quiet revolution, he just sounds so darn reasonable. Unlike what one might expect from a hard-SF writer, Brin is no elitist: it is obvious that he loves today’s society and the people that compose it. That puts him at least a notch above the many cleverer-than-thou techno-social writers.

For this reason, not everyone will agree with Brin’s “contrarian” approach. On public discussion forums, he and The Transparent Society have attracted a fair amount of negative comment. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Brin’s skepticism regarding the so-called “cypherpunk” (or “crypto-anarchist”) movement, who claim that strong encryption will liberate the people and bring down all evil governments. Brin offers several compelling reasons why this simply won’t happen, earning the enmity of these online groups.

The notion of transparency as championed by Brin is not the easiest choice to make. It’s far easier to make mistakes and have your way behind closed doors than in public. On the other hand, our civilization is more or less already based on transparency: Think of the medias, the check and balances in our government, our free market economy, our scientific method based on rigorous peer review… The very idea of truth-as-transparent is even ingrained in our language, as demonstrated by some wonderful common expressions: shady deals, dark side, murky affairs, obscure intent…

On more practical matters, the book itself is well-produced, though the numerous “hidden” footnotes bring so much to the text that they should have been integrated as on-page side notes rather than put at the end of the book. The index, however, is very complete and useful.

Brin’s overall thesis is quite convincing. The Transparent Society should be required reading for most policy-makers and forward-thinking individuals. We should consider ourselves lucky to see such a readable counterpoint to the usual shrill privacy alarms that seem to be issued daily. Brin’s ultimate message is worth thinking about; with increasingly decentralized power put in the hands of wholly average persons, privacy will become obsolete, even dangerous in the future. We cannot possibly hope to live in an information age without being transparent to some degree or another.

[July 1999: It should be noted that, fittingly enough, The Transparent Society was my first purchase ever by on-line commerce. A suitable book for a system built on a sane balance of openness (Internet) and security (encrypted transactions).]

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