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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Author: David Brin
Publisher: Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1998
Review Published: June 1999

 REVIEW 1: Erik P. Bucy

Fifteen minutes into the future society faces a dilemma. The proliferation of surveillance cameras and recording equipment -- so-called "snoop technology" -- has vanquished most crime but at the expense of unprecedented monitoring of public spaces and private places. Early in the 21st century we will face this reality, David Brin argues in The Transparent Society, and confront a troubling choice between living a free, but fishbowl-like existence of constant scrutiny on the one hand or retaining our supposed privacy while relying on the authorities to responsibly monitor society on the other.

Alas, he writes, "the reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable" (5). Yet given the growing popularity of eavesdropping devices, from remote-controlled video cameras and "nannycams" to Web "cookies" and keystroke programs that record an employee's every mouse click, these futures may be more plausible than first appears. At issue in Brin's brave new world is not whether it is possible to prevent the invasion of cameras and databases into our personal and professional lives (as Monica Lewinsky can testify, it's much too late for that) but who will ultimately control society's snoop technology -- the rich and powerful, or you and me?

How to compete, cooperate, and thrive in a "transparent society," one where average citizens have as much access to personal data, information archives, and instant surveillance images as the high and mighty, is a central question of the new century, Brin argues in this imaginative commentary. Brin calls this form of mutual scrutiny "reciprocal transparency." It's a provocative idea with a utopian cast that implies a degree of information equality that has heretofore not existed. Rather than bottling up information flows when privacy issues become a concern, Brin wants to open the spigot; in essence, to turn the camera on Big Brother. "For instance, if some company wishes to collect data on consumers across America," he writes, "let it do so only on condition that the top one hundred officers in the firm must post exactly the same information about themselves and all their family members on an accessible Web site" (81).

As many journalists have discovered upon posting their e-mail address at the end of a published article (a small gesture of reciprocal transparency), accessibility acts as an effective check against editorial arrogance. Similarly, Brin argues that accountability is the key to keeping the powerful honest and the criminal element law-abiding. Ironically, whenever a conflict arises between privacy and accountability, Brin notes, "we often take one-sided positions, self-righteously demanding far more openness from our opponents than we want applied to ourselves" (20).

Effectively adapting to the changing technological landscape will perhaps require some fundamental adjustments in our ideas about what we can reasonably expect to keep private. On the upside, once everything is out in the open, gossip will lose much of its shock value. "Anyone will be able to find out how much you paid for your nose job, or what salad dressing you buy" (334), Brin comments. More importantly, reciprocal transparency may discourage corruption and return a sense of tranquility to those mean city streets.

True to his science fiction background, Brin (best-selling author of The Uplift War, Earth, Startide Rising, and the Kevin Costner-produced The Postman) presents a compelling vision of the future by extending trends that are evident today. Although pragmatic about the transition to a transparent society ("I'd be happy to have transparency move ahead in baby steps"-- 334), Brin remains convinced that "those cameras on every street corner are coming, as surely as the new millennium" (13).

Erik P. Bucy:
Erik P. Bucy is an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University. His research focuses on the intersection of new media and politics. Bucy, who is compiling a reader in new media, serves as literary editor of L.A. Vision magazine. 

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