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


openness is freedom's best defense

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

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.

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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 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.
Projections of Cybernetic Paradise: Pundits gush that new media will transform society more than the printing press or telephone, 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 Century of Aficionados: 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 — provoking calls for action.
The Story of Privacy: Though not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, "privacy" enjoys legal and traditional protections.
The Accountability Matrix: People covet the power to see others, while controlling who can see them. 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?
An Open Society's Enemies: 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.
Virulent Ideas: Can concepts or images harm your children, family, or nation?
A Civilization of T-Cells: 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?

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?
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."
Arenas for Fair Debate: The internet already helps advocacy groups 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: Secretive behaviors deemed perilous in public officials are extolled for private persons and multinationals.
The Allure of Secrecy: Will we adopt 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?
The Devil's Own Dichotomies: Pundits talk of "tradeoffs" between freedom and efficiency, but must 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: 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.
Pragmatic Transparency: A strategy of mutual deterrence seemed risky during the Cold War ... but it worked.
A Tool Kit for the Twenty-First Century: New ideas and creative works may percolate, rising by their own merit.
The Plausibility Matrix: 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.
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



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

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'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

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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

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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

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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

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