THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?


openness is freedom's best defense

DAVID BRIN's The Transparent Society

published May 1998 by Perseus Press

Read chapter 1 on this website, or scroll down to purchase THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY.

will technology force us to choose between privacy and freedom?

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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table of contents


PART I: A New World

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?

PART II: Minefields

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?

Part III: Roadmaps

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

End Notes



Transparent Society in the world

on the web

  • the Goodreads page for The Transparent Society
  • the LibraryThing page
  • the wikipedia page
  • the Facebook fan page for The Transparent Society

  • choosing privacy and freedom

    David Brin goes into these themes at many levels in both his fiction and nonfiction. The book's publication led to him being asked to speak and consult on this subject at the World Bank and other major institutions.

    Chasing Shadows

    Chasing Shadows

    an anthology of today's transparency

    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.

    other Transparent Societies

    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.

    Information compilations:

  •!: Privacy and accountability in an age of increasing surveillance
  • pinterest: Transparency, privacy, surveillance
  • FAQs about transparency & privacy

  • film & media queries

    Queries about film or media rights to any DAVID BRIN books or stories can be addressed to his film agent:
    Vince Gerardis
    Created-By Agency
    (with cc: to David Brin)

    page 206

    the infamous page 206

    a prophecy or a warning?

    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 video

    after ten years of transparency

    secrecy v. privacy, part 1

    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.

    David Brin video

    ten more years of transparency?

    secrecy v. privacy, part 2

    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.

    surveillance in fiction & nonfiction

    letting others have their say

    The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner

    Windows into the Soul, by Gary T. Marx

    Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

    The Shadow Factory, by James Bamford

    The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

    Against Authority, by John Twelve Hawks

    Oath of Fealty, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

    Welcome to the Machine, by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan

    The Circle, by Dave Eggers

    LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking


    Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, 2008, New Haven, CT

    remarks commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the publication of The Transparent Society

    panel summary

    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.

    additional remarks

    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.

    additional remarks

    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

    reviews & testimonials

    J. Bradford DeLong (Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley)

    "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."

    Science News

    "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."

    Technology and Society

    "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."

    Stephen Browne, Southern Minnesota's Independent

    "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."

    William H. Calvin, neurophysiologist and author of How Brains Think

    "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."

    Stewart Brand, Director of Global Business Network

    "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."

    George B. Dyson, author of Darwin Among the Machines

    "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."

    Arthur Kantrowitz, Professor of Engineering, Dartmouth College

    "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."

    Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community

    "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."

    K. Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation

    "The Transparent Society reframes the debate on what our world can become — and the choices aren't what they may seem."

    Mike Toner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    "The Transparent Society ... takes a hard look at reality, and it's chilling."

    Business Week

    "Optimistic and most entertaining."

    a brief intro to science fiction author DAVID BRIN

    To learn more, visit his books page, or see his "about me" page or detailed biography.

    DAVID BRIN author


    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

    shorter fiction

    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

    Contrary Brin blog

    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

    social media influencer

    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 scientist


    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

    transparency expert

    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

    speaker & consultant

    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

    future/tech advisor

    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

    other points of departure

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    an ornery, contrary BLOG, and other insightful wormholes!

    Do not enter if you want a standard "Party" line! Contrary Brin's incendiary posts on science, sci-fi and politics and its engaged, opinionated community poke at too-rigid orthodoxies, proposing ideas and topics that fascinate — and infuriate. See for yourself, and if you like — subscribe for more.

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    reviews and recommendations

    Rob H. Bedford,

    "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."

    praise for Kiln People

    "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."

    praise for Insistence of Vision

    "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