The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Transparent Society

After Glenn Reynolds called David Brin's The Transparent Society "superb" [2001] and "prophetic" [2006], but before he got around to "excellent" [2007], I was moved to actually read it. Mr. Reynolds is, if anything, understating the case.

One of my earliest posts was about the race for power between individuals wishing to be free, and the governments and corporations wishing to coerce or manipulate them. Mr. Brin begins from similar premises, but develops his arguments much further and more concretely.

A specific point which Mr. Brin addresses in detail is the realistic case against "strong privacy" [the idea that electronic communication can provide complete anonymity]. He points out that against the time-honored methods by which governments have subjugated their citizens -- such as torture of a suspect's associates -- an encryption-based defense would be no defense at all. He also discusses the impact of the technological imbalance, for example the likelihood that governments will obtain housefly-sized surveillance devices [to watch your keystrokes] before individuals obtain defenses against them. His argument is compelling: strong privacy is feasible only when it is not truly needed.

I would like to focus on a related issue: strong privacy is also destructive to the society that attempts to support it. Its advocates see themselves, with some justification, as an elite vanguard who are taking special measures to protect their own privacy; thus they do not consider the effects of truly widespread anonymity. But anonymity is a short step from anarchy, or at best from a weak and unstable form of anarcho-capitalism.

Society is held together by trust; trust requires knowledge of True Names. If I deal only with temporary personas, which can be cast aside by the wearer if they lose their credibility, there is a hard upper limit on the trust I will ever be able to muster. ["Sammler", for example, is disposable and thus less deserving of trust.]

We live by trust; but the structures that support trust can be used for coercion. Transparency, letting us watch those who are watching us and expose those who wish to control us, is the only way to let trust and freedom coexist.

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]