Read chapter 1 on this website, or scroll down to purchase THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY.
The inescapable rush of technology is forcing us to make new choices about how we want to live. In The Transparent Society, award-winning author David Brin argues boldly against the modern fixation on secrecy, reminding us that in an era of gnat-sized cameras and clothes-penetrating radar, it will be more vital than ever for us to watch the watchers. By ensuring accountability through "reciprocal transparency," we can detect dangers and expose wrongdoers. We can share technological advances and news, gauge the credibility of pundits and politicians... and maybe even preserve a little privacy. The biggest threat to our freedom, Brin warns, is that surveillance technology will be used by too few people, not by too many.
Brin maintains that 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 have enacted laws and customs to hold commonfolk accountable, 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. Instead, it happens when we insist that everybody gets to see — when citizens demand the power to know.
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 won the Obeler Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the McGannon Public Policy Prize, and continues to be studied and cited.
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Chapter One: The Challenge of an Open Society
Surveillance Technology: Its burgeoning seems unstoppable, but this may not mean the end of freedom or privacy. The most common prescription for preventing abuse is to limit the flow of information, but a different approach may prove more effective in the long run.
The End of Photography as Proof of Anything at All: With sophisticated image processing, we may never again be able to rely on photos or videos as perfect evidence, but this may not be as calamitous as some fear.
Chapter Two: The Age of Knowledge
Transforming Technologies of the Past and Future: Other eras faced upheavals arising from new tools, especially in the use of information. Now change is accelerating at unprecedented rates.
Projections of Cybernetic Paradise: Pundits gush that new media will transform society more than the printing press or telephone, merging billions into a vast global "village," while critics call these utopian promises "silicon snake oil."
A Passion To Be Different: A spreading dogma of otherness has begun fostering unusual levels of tolerance and appreciation of diversity. A result: it is no longer as lonely to be eccentric.
A Century of Aficionados: Even before the Internet, modern wealth and leisure helped a myriad hobbies thrive. New media promote alternative threads of expertise. The next 100 years may be called the Age of Amateurs.
Citizen Truth Squads: The real news media — those ultimately responsible for uncovering truth — may be us.
Chapter Three: Privacy Under Siege
Embattled Citizens: Bosses spying on employees, our medical records leaked, our supermarket purchases recorded — new threats to privacy have been provoking calls for action.
The Story of Privacy: Though not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, "privacy" enjoys legal and traditional protections. Compromises made in the past may illuminate what we'll see in the future.
The Accountability Matrix: People covet the power to see others, while controlling who can see us. Are we hypocrites, or does the issue boil down to what works?
Chapter Four: Can We Own Information?
Who owns information: Do individuals properly own data about themselves? Will the ease of electronic copying finish off copyright? Does open access mean never having to pay for another book?
An Open Society's Enemies: Many quarrels revolve around one question — is government the only potential threat to liberty, or do other candidates pose danger to an open society?
Chapter Five: The Failure of Exhortation
Watching the Watchers: Admonishing does little good against the urges of emotional, self-interested human beings. What works is when people keep a tolerant but wary eye on each other.
Virulent Ideas: Can concepts or images harm your children, family, or nation? Most cultures tried to protect their vassals against toxic alien notions. Might free citizens instead critically judge any concept on its merits? Partisans marshal "evidence" for both points of view.
A Civilization of T-Cells: Modern citizens face a relentless propaganda campaign, barely noted because it works so well, sending forth millions of fierce individualists, eager to uncover errors. Will a social "immune system" keep us from repeating the same mistakes over and over again?
Essences and Experiments: Can "reason" offer perfect models of human nature? Pragmatic scientists disagree, pointing to data on how our brains actually work.
Chapter Six: Lessons in Accountability
A New "Commons": Other eras had territories of innocent sharing, somewhat like today's Internet. Can we learn from their mistakes?
The Risks People Will Endure: Are citizens more worried about what others know about them? Or about loss of control over their own lives? Science offers new evidence.
Guarding The Guardians: New "eyes" will assist the police... and help us monitor them.
Hacked to Bits: "Hackers" stretch the limits of accountability, yet the harmful ones are often tracked and neutralized by better hackers, who consider themselves members of a civilization.
The End of Civility?: Flaming and spamming are just a few of the new "rudeness plagues." Electronic anonymity brings out the worst in some of us.
Arenas for Fair Debate: The Net already helps advocacy groups — from environmentalists to gun clubs — organize and marshal their forces. Might it also bring opponents together for argument, negotiation, or even consensus?
Chapter Seven: The War over Secrecy
Clipper Chip and Pascal's Choice: Though over-rated as threat or panacea, the "Clipper" rallied defenders of Strong Privacy. Secretive behaviors deemed perilous in public officials are extolled for private persons and multinationals.
The Allure of Secrecy: Anonymous urban life offers attractions — at a price. Passionate advocates across the political spectrum defend a right to anonymity. Will the 21st Century fill with a blinding fog of secrecy, where only the rich or talented can see?
Defeating the Tricks of Tyrants: Are we (as some claim) living in a tyranny? If so, what methods offer hope for eventual freedom? If not, what means will best prevent tyranny from coming about?
The Devil's Own Dichotomies: Pundits talk of "tradeoffs" between freedom and efficiency, or between liberty and safety. But it is wrong to insist we choose among pairs of things that prosper together ... and that we cannot live without?
Chapter Eight: Pragmatism in an Uncertain World
Names, Passwords, and Social Security Numbers: Misunderstandings over the nature of a "name" prevent solutions to the Problem of Identification. Encryption, anonymity, and certain forms of deep privacy will all have uses, even in a transparent society.
Anonymity vs. Pseudonymity: There may be ways to attain legitimate benefits of anonymity, without the drawbacks. People can use assumed names, yet be held accountable if they do harm.
Pragmatic Transparency: A strategy of mutual deterrence seemed risky during the Cold War ... but it worked. So might mutual accountability in the info-age, among individuals and nations.
A Tool Kit for the Twenty-First Century: New ideas and creative works may percolate, rising by their own merit. Credibility "tags" may dog those who preach or bring us news. Prediction registries will help separate charlatans from those with real insight.
The Plausibility Matrix: The debate between transparency and strong privacy involves assumptions about what will be technically possible in the 21st century. Under some conditions transparency will fail to deliver accountability, and secrecy may be the only hope for the "little guy."
Chapter Nine: Humility and Limits
The Judgement of Mathematics: Chemistry in the 19th Century and physics in the 20th offered new powers and challenges to judgment. Will math be the next revolutionizing field?
The Judgement of Technology: Even the cleverest cipher code might fall to sly techniques — planting a virus, sending gnat cameras to spy on you... or the old-fashioned methods of spies.
How Things Might Go Wrong: A "transparent society" could be implemented in terrible ways. Nightmares can happen if people worry too much, or too little, about control.
A Withering Away?: Activists have revived an old dream — of an era without nations or major governments. It may happen, but not in a manner that idealists expect.
Chapter Ten: Global Transparency
These problems involve more than America — or even the "neo-west." The implications stretch worldwide, and could make the difference between peace and war.
Chapter Eleven: The Road of Openness
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, spy agencies peer at us, bank records leak and "uncrackable" firewalls topple.
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.
A companion article, Akademos, re-tells a Greek fable and expands on how and why classic Greece's brief experiment with "democracy" became our Transparent Society.
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."
David Brin released a two-part video series on the tenth anniversary of the release of The Transparent Society. In part 1 he discusses issues of transparency and accountability following a decade of sharply-increasing surveillance. Brin claims, "If we're free and powerful as citizens, privacy is something we'll be able to negotiate among ourselves." The key is reciprocal accountability.
In part 2, Brin asserts that we don't protect freedom by blinding our public servants or any elites for that matter. No people ever succeeded at blinding their elites. What safeguards freedom is insisting that the people can see and supervise elites. That, we have done to some extent; aggessively and assertively, we must apply accountability even more in the future. It is the secret trick of no secrecy.
2008 marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of David Brin's controversial book, The Transparent Society. The book argues that in the face of the explosion of sensors, cheap storage, and cheap data processing, we should adopt strategies of vision over concealment. A world in which not just transactional information, but essentially all information about us will be collected, stored, and sorted is, Brin says, inevitable. The only issue left to be decided is who will have access to this information; he argues that freedom, and even some privacy, are more likely to flourish if everybody — not just elites — has access to this flood of data. The book remains controversial and much-talked-about. The panel explores how Brin's claims hold up ten years later and whether (or how far) we're on the road to a Transparent Society.
Brin proposed a paradox which infuriated a good segment of the privacy community. It is normally an article of faith for privacy advocates that privacy empowers, and the removal of privacy is at least disempowering and at worst oppressive. Brin counters that privacy advocates have it exactly backwards: trying to maintain traditional ideas of information privacy in the face of technological changes he sees as (now) inevitable is what will disempower and perhaps oppress; only a program of radical information openness, nakedness even, stands a chance of leveling a playing field on which information is truly power.
The reception of The Transparent Society reflected the audacity of its claims. Some dismissed it; some attacked it; a few embraced it. What is striking, however, is that the ideas have had staying power: the book remains in print, it is regularly footnoted, and it comes up in discussion. Right or wrong, The Transparent Society has become more than a polar case trotted out as a good or bad example, but an as-yet unproved but also un-falsified challenge to how we think about privacy — one that demands continuing reflection (or, some would say, refutation).
The tenth anniversary of publication is an appropriate time to do that reflection at CFP. — CFP Technology Conference, 2008 panel
"If enough people read Brin's book, or are brushed by the currents of thought in represents, then it may turn into a self-negating prophecy: a warning of dystopia that by virtue of the horror it paints helps avoid that horror. That was the function of George Orwell's 1984. That is an honorable role for anyone's book."
"Brin expounds upon his belief that people need to keep watch on snooping governments, employers, insurance companies, and so on. With the installation of encryption systems and the passing of privacy laws, he fears this ability will be lost, further clouding the average person's sense of what others know about him or her. If we continue to keep watch, Brin asserts, the information gatherers can be held accountable for their actions. In assessing the current state of affairs, Brin divulges a barrage of ways and means of monitoring electronic transmissions."
"Science fiction is often a reliable predictor of the future, so it's no surprise that a noted science fiction writer would take to the non-fiction 'impact of technology' realm. It worked for Bruce Sterling, so why not for David Brin? Brin argues an interesting and controversial case about the nature of privacy and accountability in an era of widespread surveillance technologies. Unlike Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown, which recounted and examined the impact of 1990 law enforcement actions against the computer underground, The Transparent Society is more of a predictive volume."
"There is a lot to this book, but basically he says we don't have to face a choice between our children's security and our liberty, if the power of surveillance works both ways. That is to say, if the government can sit up there looking down on us, we ought to be able to look back at them."
"David Brin's nonfiction marvel, The Transparent Society, is what Lewis Mumford or Thorstein Veblen might write, could they contemplate our increasingly webbed world and its prospects for social change. It's what Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would be writing these days about technology and democracy. Brin's book is full of imaginative, far-sighted concern for how fluid information is going to transform our civil society. Knowledge only occasionally leads to wisdom, but here we see some, and the book is so wonderfully entertaining that it's bound to be widely read."
"New tech is handing society tough decisions to make anew about old issues of privacy and accountability. In opting for omni-directional openness, David Brin takes an unorthodox position, arguing knowledgeably and with exceptionally balanced perspective."
"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."
"Where, in the information age, do we draw the line between privacy and openness? David Brin's answer is illuminated by his insistence that criticism is as vital to eliminating our errors as the T-cells of our immune system are to maintaining our health.... Brin's informed and lucid advocacy of fresh air is very welcome."
"David Brin is one of the few people thinking and writing about the social problems we are going to face in the near future as the result of new electronic media. The Transparent Society raises the questions we need to ask now, before the universal surveillance infrastructure is in place. Be prepared to have your assumptions challenged."
"The Transparent Society reframes the debate on what our world can become — and the choices aren't what they may seem."
"The Transparent Society ... takes a hard look at reality, and it's chilling."
"Optimistic and most entertaining."
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
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reviews and recommendations
"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."
"Brin deftly explores the issues of identity, privacy and work in a world where everyone is supported with a living wage and has ready access to duplication technology. The book features the author's usual style, with a lighter touch and punnish humor abounding amid the hard SF speculation. The duplication of the 'ditective' makes for a challenging twist on the standard private eye narrative, allowing Morris to simultaneously lead the reader through three separate (and interacting) plot lines."
— Publisher's Weekly
David Brin has created some of the greatest classics of recent science fiction, including Startide Rising, plus the short stories "The Crystal Spheres" and "Thor Meets Captain America."
"David Brin excels at the essential craft of the page turning, which is to devise an elegantly knotted plot that yields a richly variegated succession of high-impact adventures undergone by an array of believably heroic characters."
— Entertainment Weekly
"Sacrificing anonymity may be the next generation's price for keeping precious liberty, as prior generations paid in blood." — Hal Norby
"You're wondering why I've called you here. The reason is simple. To answer all your questions. I mean — all. This is the greatest news of our time. As of today, whatever you want to know, provided it's in the data-net, you can know. In other words, there are no more secrets." — John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider, 1974
This is a tale of two cities. Cities of the near future, say ten or twenty years from now.
Barring something unforeseen, you are apt to live in one of these two places. Your only choice may be which one.
At first sight, these two municipalities look pretty much alike. Both contain dazzling technological marvels, especially in the realm of electronic media. Both suffer familiar urban quandaries of frustration and decay. If some progress is being made at solving human problems, it is happening gradually. Perhaps some kids seem better educated. The air may be marginally cleaner. People still worry about overpopulation, the environment, and the next international crisis.
None of these features is of interest to us right now, for we have noticed something about both of these 21st century cities that is radically different. A trait that marks them as distinct from any metropolis of the late 1990s.
Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a symptom, a result.
The real change peers down from every lamp post, every rooftop and street sign.
Tiny cameras, panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.
Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?
Consider city number one. In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public order — or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.
Now let's skip across space and time.
At first sight, things seem quite similar in city number two. Again, ubiquitous cameras perch on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch television to call up images from any camera in town.
Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.
Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.
A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child wandered off.
Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.
In city number two, such microcameras are banned from some indoor places... but not from police headquarters! There any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.
Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities, representing disparate ways of life, completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. The reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?