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.
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.
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 300 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 appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others. Learn More
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