In Defense of a Transparent Society

By David Brin, Ph.D.

"If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed." -- Thomas Jefferson

[image from GOOD.is

In a 2008 essay, Wired.com commentator Bruce Schneier poked a short-sharp critique toward my 1997 book, The Transparent Society, and its argument that freedom is best-served when all citizens have enough knowledge to hold each other reciprocally accountable.

Schneier, a noted analyst on matters of internet security, began by positing -- almost as an axiom -- that any civilization based upon general, reciprocal openness would be a major departure from our present social contract. Something "different than before."

Alas, that premise is false, right out the gate. For we already live in the openness experiment, and have for two hundred years. It is called the Enlightenment -- with "light" both a core word and a key concept in our turn away from 4,000 years of feudalism. All of the great enlightenment arenas -- markets, science and democracy -- flourish in direct proportion to how much their players (consumers, scientists and voters) know, in order to make good decisions. To whatever extent these arenas get clogged by secrecy, they fail.

How did we get the freedom we already have, becoming the first civilization in history to (somewhat) defy ancient patterns? Yes, it's imperfect, always under threat. We swim against hard currents of human nature. But reciprocal accountability is the innovation that lets us even try.

Bruce claimed that The Transparent Society didn't address "the inherent value of privacy." But several chapters do, concluding that privacy is an inherent human need, too important to leave in the hands of state elites following ornate information-control rules written by... elites. Rules that never work. (Robert Heinlein said "'privacy laws' only make the bugs smaller.")

The lazy caricature suggests that transparency will end privacy, making everyone walk around naked. It does take some mental flexibility to realize how a generally open society will be privacy-friendly. But it was a generally open society that invented modern privacy.

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

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

Now try setting up a restaurant 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 overwhelmingly chosen?

"We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert." -- J. Robert Oppenheimer

Continuing, Bruce Schneier posed a thought experiment "...think of your existing power as the exponent in an equation that determines the value of 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 (above) and replace the words "information" and "new data" with "secrets." Now, it can be argued that both versions are true. But 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? One early Enlightenment trick was divide the elites. Sic 'em on each other! Unions vs. management, tort lawyers vs. megacorporations, regulators vs moguls, and activist Nongovernmental Organizations against any power center you can name. NGOs, the boomer innovation, let citizens clump en-masse, pooling influence to increase their common "Schneier exponent" and use information advantageously. It's an enlightenment method of great power and flexibility. Each person can find and join an NGO suited to any passion or interest.

But the next step in people empowerment is even more impressive -- those burgeoning "smart mobs" Howard Rheingold and Vernor Vinge talk about, and now Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It's agile. It's wired. Every generation innovates, or the Enlightenment dies.

Oh, I can hear cynical snorts. Yes, it's flawed! Elites keep rediscovering tricks of secret collusion. Still, if it's hopeless, how come we're having this conversation?

Almost monthly, we hear of some angry cop arresting a citizen on trumped "privacy violations," for using a cellcam or MP3 to record an interaction with authority. (In Wired, twelve years ago, I forecast these "rodneykings.") And each month, judges toss the arrests, forcing police to apologize. Every time. So much for those power-exponents.

Schneier even cites this trend, swerving his essay at the end, 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 (and I might be wrong) that he meant light should shine in one direction, from masses onto elites, 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, who then exploit every exception? (And can you show me once, in history, when elites let themselves be blinded?)

This flaw erupts in most anti-transparency arguments. "Light should shine on groups I worry about, but not on me or mine." 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 while seldom having to enforce it, needing no screens or vigilant authorities to protect them, or to make them behave. Privacy is good! And... guess what? It happens when we empower people to see.

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 have.

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." -- James Madison