Talk:"The Transparent Society:" Ten Years Later
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Preliminary statements and discussion for panel:
David Brin --> I am appreciative of all this attention being paid to The Transparent Society. Especially because it was at CFP conferences in the early and mid nineties -- back in innocent days, when the main buzz in the hallways was about the Clipper Chip -- that I had a chance to broach notions of reciprocal accountability and freedom-through-openness, exposing them to fierce criticism from some of the most knowledgeable and passionate defenders of tech-empowered liberty.* I owe much to the pounding that I got then, learning to see these issues from a number of different, fiercely-held viewpoints.
That very process brought home to me the basic truth of the Enlightenment -- that criticism is the only known antidote to error... and the irony of the Enlightenment -- that nobody can properly supply their own criticism. We all gain from fair and open competition. It is the great discovery of John Locke and Adam Smith and Ben Franklin... and that Robert Wright talks about in his important book NONZERO. Indeed, if you had to distill our great experiment down to one thing, it is the emergent property of positive sum games -- our markets and democracy and science -- where competition can (sometimes) result in everybody being better off, even the losers.
Do I sound libertarian? I have a cooperation-fetish too! But as a scientist, I know that reciprocal accountability is how truth marches forward. As a citizen, I can see what happens to democracy when information flows are shut down. As a historian, I know that cheaters and kings and priests across 4,000 years relied utterly upon keeping the common man and woman in the dark. And there are cheaters, today, who want to do the same.
Do I believe transparency is always the answer? Actually, no. Privacy (as I say in TS) is a fundamental human desire and a future without some privacy will hardly be worth living. But the irony is that we will be better able to defend a little privacy -- and FAR better able to defend a lot of freedom -- if most citizens know most of what's going on, most of the time.
Anyway, it's a position that has spread, gradually. (The Transparent Society is one of the only public policy books from the Twentieth Century that's still in print, selling strong.;-) In part because people have started to notice something basic about those who criticize transparency. They never offer a detailed alternative. They never show us HOW the databases can be stopped from leaking, how fallible human beings will stop losing laptops, how "privacy commissions" can protect us, or how society's elites can be trusted to obey "privacy laws" -- when there are no examples to cite, of that every happening, anywhere, at any time, throughout the entire history of humankind.
We built our Enlightenment under an assumption that citizens can both cooperate and compete best when information flows. Science, democracy and markets all rely on this, and start to fade and stumble whenever murk fills the space between us. All I ask of you defenders of freedom, is that you remember who brought us to this party. It is a little thing called light. -- David Brin
- (A side note. Tech-empowered liberty saw its greatest day on 9/11/01, when all of our paid protectors failed, and it was common citizens with video cameras and cell phones who did every single thing that worked. See: http://www.futurist.com/archives/society-and-culture/value-and-empowerment/ )