David Brin's best-selling novels include The Postman (filmed in 1997) plus explorations of our near-future in Earth and Existence. His award-winning novels and short stories explore vividly speculative ideas through a hard-science lens. His nonfiction book, The Transparent Society, won the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award for exploring 21st Century concerns about security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin has been writing about these issues for several years before and after the publication of The Transparent Society. Here are a few venues where he continues the discussion.
See these pages of David Brin's articles and interviews on science, technology, inventions & discoveries, and how we're designing our future.
David Brin isn't the only person thinking about transparency and writing about The Transparent Society.
The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? was published in May 1998 by Perseus Press (formerly Addison Wesley). This large nonfiction work concerns threats to privacy and openness in the information age. It won the Obeler Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the McGannon Public Policy Prize, and is still in print.
Our society has one great knack above all others — one that no other ever managed — that of holding the mighty accountable. Although elites of all kinds still have many advantages over commonfolk, never before have citizens been so empowered. And history shows that this didn't happen by blinding the mighty — a futile endeavor that has never worked. It happened by insisting that everybody get to see. By citizens demanding the power to know.
Chasing Shadows is a science fiction and tech-vision anthology about the coming age of transparency.
Light appears to be pouring across the planet. Young people log their lives with hourly True Confessions. Cops wear lapel-cams and spy agencies peer at us — but suffer defections and whistle blowers. Bank records leak and "uncrackable" firewalls topple. As we debate internet privacy, revenge porn, the NSA and Edward Snowden, cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more numerous — faster than Moore's Law.
Is it the dawn of Big Brother? Or a billion judgmental "little brothers"? The authors contributing stories and essays to Chasing Shadows will explore their own visions of what might propel — or obstruct — a world civilization awash in light.
This is the page where — in a creepy "Twilight zone" moment — The Transparent Society seemed to predict the events of 9/11 and the details of the Patriot Act:
"As a mental experiment, let's go along with FBI director Freehand try to envisage what might have happened if those bombers had actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again."
Thanks to the great science fiction author, George Orwell, we share a compelling metaphor — Big Brother — propelling our fears about a future that may be dominated by tyrants. Finding ways to escape that fate — and instead preserve this narrow, fragile renaissance of freedom — is the common goal of activists across the spectrum.
Facial Recognition has arrived... Smile! The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS), allowing authorities to identify individuals by their faces — from images collected by street cams, driver’s license photos, mug shots or other sources. Oversight and sousveillance are absolutely essential lest this lead to Big Brother.
You may have heard that a consortium of journalists, working on a cache of 2.5 million recently spilled files, has cracked open the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and mega-rich the world over. If preliminary reports prove to be true, it could portend the start of a worldwide radical movement for transparency that I forecast (including — for dramatic effect — a world war on Switzerland) in my 1989 novel Earth.
Sousveillance isn't just a response to surveillance, it is the wellspring of freedom. We should ask which is more important: what government knows about us, or what it might do to us? Actions can be observed and transgressors held accountable by a brash citizenry monitoring from below — when the goal to preserve both freedom and safety.
The Transparent Society describes exactly this kind of tension, between citizens armed with new tools of vision and accountability, and tens of thousands of police who see themselves as doing a harsh, difficult and under-appreciated job. Cameras will get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year. So figures of authority might as well get used to it now.
In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. Intelligence Community — and the subsequent storm of protest — President Obama appointed a blue ribbon commission to survey the situation and report back with recommendations. The contents of their report — now made public — were certain to raise controversy. Which fixes would you want?
Perhaps the best cursory look at the unusual argument made in The Transparent Society can be found in "Akademos: A Parable about Openness." An extended excerpt — plus some summarized points — is available for reading on this website.
In this essay, published on Contrary Brin, David notes: Cameras are getting smaller, faster, better, cheaper and more mobile at a rate far faster than Moore's Law. And yet, nearly every discussion of surveillance assumes that they will remain great big, visible boxes on lamp posts. They won’t. They will shrink and move and zoom and become smaller and more numerous than mosquitos. Calls to banish them fail to answer — How?
Watch this speech delivered at Bard College's Hannah Arendt Center, where Brin notes that wanting to preserve privacy is only the beginning. How do we preserve it, when we look for Big Brother in government and universities and corporations and fail to see the ones living next door?
The dichotomy of "security versus freedom" becomes stark whenever the public feels nervous over threats like terrorism, as earnest "protectors" pose our choice in stark terms, portraying our Professional Protector Caste as eager to demolish our last protections.
Stephen W. Potts, co-editor of Chasing Shadows, recommends five books about surviving surveillance. "This, of course, is the quandary we confront in the age of social networks and smart phones that communicate our wants, needs, and locations to everyone, voluntarily or not."
Watch David's speech, "Privacy vs Omniveillance: A look at Big Picture AI," for IBM's World of Watson, Las Vegas, October 2016.
Brin called it the most important civil liberties victory of this century so far — perhaps in thirty years — even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be "settled law" that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places. So how to we responsibly exercise this right?
The cameras are getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at rates far faster than Moore’s Law. If you find a clever way to evade them now, will it work next year, when there are four times as many of them and harder to spot? Hiding won’t work. It cannot. Nor will shouting "don’t look at me!" Only one thing has ever worked. Only one thing possibly can work.
So many problems in the world can be attributed to murky title, from peasants abused by a nearby lord to an oil tanker that befouled beaches in Brittany with no owner ever held accountable, because of deeply nested shell companies. What does "ownership" mean, if you are unwilling to state, openly, "I own that"? Any property that has not been claimed by a human being, family, or clearly tracked group of humans within three years will revert to the state and be re-sold to pay down the public debt.
In 2012 top U.S. courts (Glik v. Cunniffe) ruled that citizens have an absolute right to record their interactions with police in public places. I went on to say that the matter would continue to be at issue, at the level of the streets, with many cameras and cell phones "accidentally" broken... until that phase of resistance ends the way it must, with more bystander-cams catching — then deterring — the breaking of cameras.
Face-recognition has reached your smart phone, bringing science fiction closer and also (I expect) a storm of controversy. In this article, we learn of progress in some nations, while others cling tenaciously to old, corruption-prone ways.
To be clear: we need these 'T Cells' as we rush into a technological future. There are so many pitfalls, snake pits, quicksand pools, mine fields and failure modes that the only conceivable way that we can evade the killer errors is by unleashing millions of avid, immune-system "cells" to sniff and hunt down every possible mistake. Even when they prove wrong — or to be exaggerating — the light they shine is cleansing.
Most of our vexing Information Age problems revolve around a central matter of secrecy: who should use it and who gets to penetrate the veils of others. Almost daily some elite — of government, wealth, criminal or corporate — is outed for snooping, from the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI to Microsoft and Apple, to British and French intelligence, to news media harassing celebrities, to "private bankers" and Latin American blackmail rings. Corporations swap our information for profit. Businesses and researchers suffer a hemorrhage of lost intellectual property, stolen by predatory regimes. The greatest flood of all? Vast troves of information that we willingly — or unwittingly — reveal about ourselves through online searches, purchases and postings on social media.
We are in for a time of major decisions as the Moore's Law of Cameras — sometimes called "Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law" — takes hold and elites of all kinds are tempted to utilize surveillance in Orwellian-controlling ways... often with rationalized good intentions. Alas, many "champions of privacy and freedom" push the nebulous notion that dark outcomes can be prevented by passing laws against this or that elite looking at this or that kind of information. In other words, by restricting information flows.
This well-written article summarized ideas exchanged during an interesting panel discussion at Arizona State University. Topics ranged from reputation systems and surveillance technologies to the future of the Internet as a problem-solving tool.
"The thing to compare to is the far more mature arenas that we use to solve problems today: competitive markets, which compete over products and goods and services; democracy, in which competition supposedly gets the rough edges off of policy; science, which still works; courts; and the press, supposedly."
In this analysis of recent cybersecurity warnings Brin questions their underlying motive: "I never deemed it likely the government needs backdoors in order to see. Or rather, I would take odds that they already exist. The real purpose of such lavish public jeremiads by Comey and others — demanding physical back doors and crypto keys that they'll never, realistically, be given — may be to make others think there is a 'going dark problem.'"
"How do we protect privacy and empower citizens when cameras become smaller and proliferate daily, when the threat of global terrorism tempts us into passing hyper-privacy legislation so our governments and corporations can keep even more secrets, yet the proliferation of social networking sites and 'whistleblower' clades may indicate people are perhaps ready to accept more transparency in our personal and public lives?" On the tenth anniversary of the release of The Transparent Society David Brin taped two YouTube videos discussing that question and more.
For better or worse, the changes in transparency have meant the return to the village of old — where everyone knows everyone — but will it be the village that's tolerant and accepting of its citizenry, or the suspicious, oppressive village?
Media discussions of privacy, freedom and the information age are starting to get more interesting, as folks finally start to realize a core truth... that everything eventually leaks. That the reflex of whining and demanding shadows to hide-in will never work. The data we entrust to banks and retail chains? The trade secrets that companies rely on for competitive advantage? The cherished spy programs of our governmental professional protector caste (PPC)? If these do not leak because of hackers, or accidents, then would-be (or self-styled) whistle-blowers will see to it, sooner or later.
Writing in the New York Times, Brin maintains that what these knights errant and countless others represent about our time is more significant than any specific revelation. Spanning the range from brave whistle-blowers revealing the illegal and heinous, all the way to preening indignation junkies (often blending both extremes), they are just what you’d expect from a society whose pop media endlessly preach eccentric individualism and suspicion of authority.
The Edward Snowden revelations sparked a debate about transparency, security, and privacy, and (naturally!) David Brin was asked to respond. One result was this Christian Science Monitor op-ed article about how privacy intrusions have gone global. What are today's knights-errant — Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden — teaching us?
This roundtable discussion by the Washington DC Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-DC) and the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center asks: "The Internet, social media and the Internet of Things are dramatically reducing the cost of collecting and sharing information. One result is that it is becoming easier to track what companies and governments are doing. Another result is that whistleblowers, malicious hackers, and organizations like Wikileaks can disseminate huge quantities of confidential information (e.g. government memos, Swiss bank records, and phone recordings). Are we seeing an inevitable trend towards transparency? Or will companies and organizations find ways to lock down their networks and their information? If radical transparency is inevitable, what should organizations do to adapt?"
In this Salon article, Brin notes: "We tend to shrug over each other’s harmless or opinionated eccentricities. But can that trait last very long when powerful groups scrutinize us, without being scrutinized back? In the long run, tolerance depends on the ability of any tolerated minority to enforce its right to be left alone. This is achieved assertively, not by hiding. And assertiveness is empowered by knowledge."
Intrinsically, you can never be certain what elites see or know. But actions can be observed and held accountable, by insisting that all watchers be supervised, answering top-down surveillance with "sousveillance," the habit of a brash citizenry monitoring from below — with a goal to preserve both freedom and safety. Sousveillance isn't just a response to surveillance, it is the wellspring of freedom.
This humanity+ interview cites Brin's speculations about how a positive sousveillance can arise: "He reckons that if sousveillance became a reality, new patterns of social tact would likely evolve, and society and psychology would self-organize into some new configuration, which would leave people significant privacy in practice, but would also contain the everpresent potential of active sousveillance as a deterrent to misdoings. This can be illustrated by extending the restaurant analogy; if universal sousveillance means that all peeping toms are always caught in the act, then such a society might wind up with more privacy than you’d expect."
The sci-fi idea that suddenly became mainstream! Groups that would normally be skeptical of authorities videotaping everything support the idea of camera-equipped cops. The American Civil Liberties Union published a white paper last year supporting the use of the cameras. "Everybody wishes right now there was a video record of what happened," says Jay Stanley, the author of the ACLU's paper, referring to the Ferguson shooting.
In this article Brin predicted the future of cyberwar, post-WikiLeaks: "We've seen a maelstrom of indignant fury with all sides claiming the moral high ground. Banks and credit companies that reject doing business with WikiLeaks have been punished by leaderless networks of online activists — who are in turn attacked by 'patriotic hackers.' Meanwhile, similar cycles of sabotage or theft, followed by retaliation, are seen when hackers from China or the former Soviet bloc invade Western computer systems, compromising either intellectual property or stores of personal identities, or destabilize systems like Facebook and Google that empower citizen movements in other countries. Accusations fly amid a growing cast of intermeshed characters."
Intellectual property law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of large corporations and not the public or progress. The chief villains are those who exploit "ownership" to make "intellectual property" serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people. But the potential harm goes deeper.
For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device? The Baghdad Battery? The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria? Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost. Why? Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place.
Brin's rambling and cathartic essay about the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the general problem of terrorism appeared on the Futurist site. Carrying this theme forward is a subsequent (and more carefully written and nuanced) Futurist essay pointing out that ordinary citizens armed mainly with information were the most effective defenders of our civilization on that tragic day. Could this point to a trend for the 21st Century, reversing what we've seen throughout the 20th — the ever-growing dependency on politicians and corporations and self-appointed "leaders" to protect and guide and watch over us?
To commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the publication of The Transparent Society Wired.com commentator Bruce Schneier poked a short-sharp critique at it. I responded with this short-sharp defense: "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."
a collection of DAVID BRIN's speeches
David Brin speaks to the Internet Society about how to discover errors before they happen.
Brin gave this speech, which looks at Big Picture AI, at IBM's World of Watson, Las Vegas, October 2016.
In order for either governmental or capitalist solutions to work, the clouds of needless secrecy simply have to part. Opposing this is not a matter of 'left' versus 'right' but of using radical transparency to save capitalism.
In 2005 Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr. published his book, No Place to Hide, and David was asked to review it for the July 2005 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Naturally, he disagreed with its gloom-and-doom conclusions.
The more open a civilization is, and the more open its competition, the more it becomes a matter for the accountability arenas — markets, science, and democracy — to create beneficial synergies out of competition, instead of reciprocal destruction. Further, the more open the playing fields, the more standing its individuals have, contributing their billions of eyes to a network that can detect errors and criminality, and helping professionals to do their jobs.
Can we thrive in the information age by embracing, not fearing the power to seea>? Let's put it plainly. The opposite approach — finding ways to control and limit information flows and prevent databases from leaking — has never once been demonstrated in practice to be effective. Every couple of months another tsunami spilll takes place... from one company then an agency then a nonprofit then another trusted company... and no one learns the obvious lesson.
Even if you do manage to restrict what the government sees, that will only be temporary. Time and technology are changing rapidly. Take Brin's Corollary to Moore's Law: that cameras get cheaper, smaller, better, more mobile and more numerous — each year — at a rate that is much faster than Moore's Law.
It seems that almost daily, some elite is outed for snooping. Much of today’s hand-wringing focuses rightfully on potential abuse of power. Both ends of the hoary political spectrum share one dread: that despots will be tech-empowered by universal surveillance. But is it fallacious to base our freedom and safety upon blinding of elites? First, can you name one time in human annals when that actually happened? When those on top forsook any powers of vision? Forbid, and you’ll drive it underground.
Whenever people try to control what can be known about them, they fail to realize that "our information" is also a delusion that will fray and unravel with time, leaving us with what is practical, what matters... how to maintain control NOT over what others know about us, but what they can DO to us. In order to accomplish that, we must know as much about the mighty as they know about us.
Sousveillance, or empowering citizens to look back at every sort of powerful elite, has been, in fact, the very reflex that brought us to this festival of freedom and creativity-generated wealth. Yet, it seems difficult to get people — who use tech to bemoan the rise of tech — to parse HOW this is best achieved.
Neighborhood watches armed with Google glasses (and our ubiquitous smart phones) could help deter crime, but there could be many unforeseen consequences. The events that transpire after a video reveals police brutality show just how powerful camera footage can be. One might argue that citizen cameras can help counteract government infiltration of private lives.
The basic idea that you will better thrive by hiding information from your foes, competitors and rivals, even if this accelerates an arms race of obscurity and spying, creates a secular trend toward ever-reduced transparency. What is at issue here is fundamentally a question of the zero sum game.
Should we worry much less about restricting what the government and other elites can see (how you gonna stop em?) than about preserving our right to look back? But can we look? Really? We have the illusion of choice... but six media giants now control a staggering 90% of what we read, watch or listen to, in the U.S.
Our protective agencies can be expected to continue pressing for better surveillance methods, both in pursuit of a professional ability to do their jobs and as a natural outcome of human psychology. They will never give up because we monkeys need to see and powerful ones won't be denied. If forbidden, they will simply peer at us surreptitiously. Robert Heinlein said: "Privacy laws make the spy bugs smaller."
Will bitter ideological rifts dominate the 21st Century, as they did the 20th? Or might we shrug off some of the obsolete intellectual baggage we've inherited from past thinkers who (in fact) knew much less than we do now? David Brin's questionnaire regarding ideology and human destiny pokes at the deeper assumptions that underlie the many assumptions we take for granted.
See this interview with David Brin and others in this Forbes article, which concludes that the right way to deal with data redlining is not to prohibit the collection of data, as so many misguided privacy advocates seem to urge, but rather, to prohibit its misuse once companies have that data.
In this episode of Milk, Brin tackles the crypto space and issues of state surveillance in an entirely different manner.
David Brin gave a provocative interview about The Transparent Society to appeared in Switch: "But the saddest thing is how little you folks seem to hope for your children. If you feel you cannot make a better world for them, then I certainly encourage you not to have any. I suggest you try nihilism on for size. You are already halfway there."
In this Variety magazine interview Brin comments on life after the Sony hack: "Live and work as if anybody might be watching now.... Never absolutely count on anything being secret. Always act as if there’s a chance what you’re doing will be revealed.... Privacy is an absolutely essential trait, but the only way we’ll get any is in a mostly open world.
Brin was interviewed for Amazon.com, where he noted: "The Constitution never mentions the word 'privacy.' Most legal scholars consider privacy to be a secondary derived right — one that society can adjust up or down, like the volume of the radio, depending upon what we wish, what we desire. Freedom of speech is something entirely different."
In this Metroactive interview, Brin suggests a contrarian solution to society's unmasking: "If privacy is history, he asks, why not build instead a future of openness, trust and mutual accountability based on the free two-way flow of information?"
A CNN interview discusses the modern threats to privacy Brin outlines in The Transparent Society: "Naturally, there are core groups that like uneven information flows. Whenever an industry is told to increase its openness and accountability, they tend to scream that the sky will fall."
The Snowden/NSA revelations resulted in this interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Anyone who thinks they're going to conceal information from elites has no sense of historical, technological or civilization perspective. But we can, and should, look at them."
In this podcast interview (by Jerry Brito, who wrote "Brin, Transaction Costs and Do Not Track") David discusses reciprocal accountability as the "key to minimizing undesirable effects and behaviors."
This 10 minute video about transparency and what the Internet Miracle will bring is one of the best excerpts from an interview David Brin gave a European television station during the recent conference in Lithuania on DigitalFutures 2050.
Another DigitalFutures 2050 interview excerpt explains the most difficult concept of the information age — that we should stop whining about how much elites can see, and instead be militant about looking back at them.
NPR interviewed Brin about Google Glass and the future of spy-wear.
When it comes to privacy being hacked, it’s often said that I’m saying everything will be naked and that we’ll have no privacy. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. Privacy is an absolutely essential trait, but the only way we’ll get any is in a mostly open world.
On Openness, Privacy and Surveillance explains the most difficult concept of the information age, once more time hammering on what ought to be obvious. That we should stop whining about how much elites can see and instead be militant about looking back at them. We must watch the watchers! Sousveillance is the only response to surveillance.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!). Learn More
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form. Learn More
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore. Learn More
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages. Learn More
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research. Learn More
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy. Learn More
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.Learn More
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others. Learn More
All the Ways in the World to Reach David Brin
"I would consider Existence to be a triumphant, epic Science Fiction novel on many levels. It stayed with me after I set it aside for the day, continues to simmer in my mind now that I've finished reading it, and has opened up a gateway to Brin's novels I'd wanted to enter for a while. Brin achieved an excellent gestalt of character, big ideas, and narrative energy."
— Rob H. Bedford, SFFWorld.com
"As David Brin details the inevitability of ubiquitous surveillance, your instinct, as an individual facing this one-way mirror, is to hope that he is wrong about the facts. As you follow his argument for two-way social transparency, you realize your only hope is that he is right."
"The fiction of David Brin is informed by a central recurring theme as well, in his case the operation of various kinds of evolution: organic and synthetic, directed and undirected, fast and slow. This interest in dynamic change feeds into his vision of SF as an essentially optimistic form: not because he believes in 'progress' but because he believes in the ability of humankind to improve its condition."
"Our people found it stimulating to converse with someone who has perspicaciously synthesized so many surprising patterns in human behavior and technology (enthusiastically) and who offers positive, pragmatic suggestions for our company evolution. One team member left 'with all kinds of ideas and motivation for being creative and innovative, both at work and outside.'"
"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."
— The Transparent Society