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Some thoughts on The Transparent Society by David Brin

It's difficult to respond to the book by taking it whole as a coherent thesis since Brin repeatedly presents the book just as a collection of suggestions or ruminations or just points he's making about the value of transparency in an increasingly electronic age. If Brin just wants to be a commentator on the fringe peeping up with ideas that he can back away from later with a "I was just saying..." or a "Just a thought/suggestion...", fine, but if not, if he wants these ideas to be taken seriously then it seems necessary (perhaps even in the fine traditions of transparency and criticism the book promotes) to dissect and analyze his propositions and assertions.

While the provided notes are nice, more detailed footnotes and references would have been very helpful. P. 254: "For an example, at an Ivy League university, a conservative hacker collated and published the names of all those on campus who had subscribed to the Usenet group alt.sex.stories." This might have been something Rumpus Magazine did while I was at Yale (in which case, Brin's retelling is exaggerated and incorrect), this might be another incident. Without a source or citation, we'll never know.

Much of his argument seems to rest on the notion that "I don't have anything to hide because I'm not doing anything wrong. If you're not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have anything to hide, either." This is disturbing. Should we assume that the citizen who doesn't want to answer a policeman's questions when pulled over is guilty? It is privileged and nave to assume that everyone should do their best to help law enforcement as much as they can and that law enforcement will always act on the provided information fairly and truthfully. This brash abandonment of an "innocent until proven guilty" is worrisome. There is plenty of systemic bias and corruption not only in government but in corporations that make the notion of unfettered, self-disinterested cooperation disingenuous and destructive.

A valuable notion that Brin advances is that while there are important distinctions between government and corporations (ultimate threat of force, competition) there are important areas where it is counterproductive to distinguish between them. If the libertarian goal of "running government like a corporation" is, to some extent, worthy (which I think it is) then the reverse should also sometimes be true - sometimes corporations need to be restricted in ways that currently only apply to governments. It shouldn't be intrinsically less troubling that Experian or Trans Union has a digital blueprint of my identity than if various bureaus of the federal government have that same blueprint. If the information is valuable and should be protected from misuse, then those protections should apply to the information wherever it is.

To suggest that micropayments for personal data are counterproductive for individuals misses the point. P 105: "My best recommendation for the future would err in favor of openness, and not sweating the small stuff. While hard work and creativity deserve fair rewards, I see no point in charging some mail order company a penny for my address." The annual income from ten or 100 or 500 such address-rentals may not end up being significant to the individual, but it may have a significant impact on the companies doing the renting. The increased costs of obtaining such lists due to the necessary payment to mail targets may change the frequency and dynamics of such mailings. Companies may be forced to forgo less targeted, lower-projected-success mailings in favor of more targeted campaigns. At worst, this reduces the volume of such solicitations. At best, it increases the chance that an individual actually finds useful the ads he is bombarded with.

P. 128: Brin issues the foolhardy challenge: "I'll bet you can't cite a single popular book or film from the last decade whose processed message is conformity."

From the time in 3rd grade when, reading Sounder, I was told by my teacher that the kid's blindness was his own fault because he was the one who found the firecrackers in the first place to the episode of Home Improvement where the boy is told by his parents who used marijuana that "it's different now" and that drugs are bad, there has been an onslaught of conformist media. For every celebration of ET, there is a ridicule of Art Bell. For every movie like JFK, there are the relentless criticisms of those who truly believe some of the movie's assertions. Sure, there are plenty of "individual" heroes in pop culture that go against the grain and succeed in the end, but the goals for which they are working, usually, are ultimately conformist and status-quo enforcing.

Is Footloose a movie where nonconformity triumphs because Kevin Bacon succeeds in getting the kids to dance? Or is it an even more insidious movie where the lesson is that an "appropriate" thing to rebel about is the chance to dance, instead of the pervasive social and economic inequities in America and the world?

Was every "Just Say No To Drugs" commercial a message of nonconformity?

The undercurrent of school curriculum cannot be ignored through all of this, either. Every piece of pop culture absorbed by children 5 - 18 is against a backgroup of a morning Pledge of Allegiance. Think about those words. A pledge. Of Allegiance. To a Flag.

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the nation for which it stands, one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Every morning, we stand at attention and promise to obey a flag and a God and a indivisible nation. An indivisible nation is not a striking symbol of individuality. Schools flirt with "individuality" by having students read novels like "Catcher In The Rye," a novel where the nonconformist "hero" ends up, alcoholic and sexually dysfunctional, in a mental institution. This is not an encouraging lesson in the value of nonconformity.

Troublingly, Brin relies on this fruitful blooming of eccentricity as a positive facet of future transparent society. That, freed from the conformist binds of the past, encouraged by diverse media, future citizens will be bursting with new ideas and new culture products that will make us all better people. This is pathetically nave. What happens to people now with nonconformist new ideas? They are repeatedly and systematically excluded from political debate (Alan Keyes, Libertarian Party, etc.) If they have some fame, they can make a little dent (Ralph Nader), and if they have lots and lots of money, they can make a moderate impact (Ross Perot). America's ballot access laws are a tremendous barrier to new ideas and political diversity. Even increased availability of campaign contribution information online hasn't made much of a dent in America's two-party tyranny, although perhaps over time, such increased information couldn weaken it.

If personal information is available everywhere, it is impossible to dismiss the threat of permanent voyeurs as easily as Brin does. People buy the National Enquirer today, they will buy the more intrusive electronic survelliance version of the National Enquirer tomorrow. There is little or no reciprocality in exchanging information both ways. Movie stars and politicians don't care about the personal lives of the millions who will sit in front of their Transparency Machines for hours at a time watching every move of the famous. There is not necessarily an equivalent level of interest between watchers and watchees.

P. 182ff: Brin's "open transaction" scheme is ridiculous. While it seeks to prevent forgery of false transactions, it has no mechanism to prevent false repudations or confirmations of transactions. He bases his belief that communications could not be tampered with by writing that the electronic address that notification will be sent to "cannot be hacked because it stands in open view at all times, checked - routinely, randomly, and redundantly - as often as anyone wishes." What is to prevent wily hackers from intercepting the data flow to and from such an electronic address and modifying certain messages as they pass? Altering confirmations and repudiations? Redirecting the flow of messages for a microsecond? Nothing, in this encryptionless fantasyworld.

Brin seems to find relying on encryption troubling because encryption is "ornate and unproved technology" and that one day, due to an overlooked mathematical oops, "all forms of encryption [could] prove less reliable than expected." While I'm neither mathematically talented nor foolish enough to claim that one way functions will eternally be one way, I have enough trust in the security-through-open-analysis rigor that most modern cryptosystems have been through that I'm willing to trust them with my data. Moreover, many current encryption schemes have built-in timebombs in them anyway. As computing hardware power increases, keyspaces that were once adequate become crackable. This makes a periodic reencrypting of data necessary. With this mindset and infrastructure in place, guardians of encrypted data would be able to deal with the need to adapt or change encryption mechanisms to stay ahead of code-cracking research.

Additionally, what guarantees the persistent success of openness and transparency? If it is shortsighted to build a future based on assumptions about encryption that one day may be rendered void, is it not equally shortsighted to build a future based on assumptions about transparency and access to information that may one day also be rendered void? Guaranteeing the information flow in Brin's transparent future requires a tremendous technical infrastructure with continuous uptime and ubiquitous distribution. Will these technical tools be eternally available to rich and poor? Who pays the utility bills and fixes the broken machines? Who updates the software? Who tutors people to ferret out the information they're looking for from the "smog"? While we may set up programs and bureaus and volunteers and corporations to administer all of this, if it is plausible to assume that mathematical pillars of encryption might one day fall, it seems plausible to assume that the societal pillars of watchdoggery might one day fall as well.


The Transparent Society, by David Brin. ISBN: 020132802x
October, 1998
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