Monday, August 11, 2008

The Transparent Society - a review

The Transparent Society, by David Brin

It used to be that I only had to worry about Santa Claus watching me.

When I was in London a couple of years ago, however, I noticed cameras everywhere. We're not just talking in the 7 Eleven... there were cameras on the street corners! This trend apparently began in a British Burg named King's Lynn, where sixty remote controlled cameras were installed to scan known trouble spots. In or near zones covered by surveillance in King's Lynn, crime dropped to 1/70th of the former rate. The success of this experiment has been greeted with much enthusiasm. There are plans for similar systems in NYC.

People are often less happy that cameras are being installed in their own workplaces. Or that their phone calls, coffee breaks, and bathroom trips are being timed. And their keystrokes measured to determine their efficiency. Or that their email is being read.

The proliferation of computers, cameras, and other surveillance devices ensures that you will be watched more and more closely as time goes by. They become more affordable, more portable, and less detectable each year. Sony already sells a digital color camcorder the size of a passport... and researchers have suggested air born cameras the size of gnats.

Sound scary yet? Is this the dawning of the age of Big Brother?

Although the cameras are sure to come (think of anyone trying to stop the spread of television), author David Brin suggests that the way to escape from drowning in cameras is to let them watch... and to watch back. To watch the watchmen.

Some hackers suggest legally enforced anonymity and unbreakable encryption as a way to save ourselves from ubiquitous electronic eyes. If we can block the electronic view of our government, then we should be safe from intrusion. But what about big business, such as the employers mentioned earlier? Ultimately, given the immense resources and often atrophied ethics of our own aristocracy, the average person's private lives will be open books to the mighty.

However, if we can watch back, those who can be caught may not be so eager to spy. Brin quotes a fellow writer as saying: "An armed society is a polite society." Only this time, we are arming ourselves with cameras and laws that make the rich and powerful as visible as we are.

He envisions citizen truth squads, tribes of interested amateurs who correct mistakes and foil mischief even as it occurs, on the internet, in public life, or even in your home.

Imagine a scene a few years into the future, say 2 AM on Saturday, as a cop pulls over a young man for a traffic violation. The cop worries about a potentially violent encounter. The youth has just been to a party.

The patrolman approaches the vehicle. A lens on his badge sends images straight to HQ.

"Would you please get out of the car, sir?"

Standing, the teen reveals the light of his lapel camera, winking away, transmitting the encounter home to his own inexpensive home computer/VCR.

Will either of them be likely to jump the gun?

Transparency is bigger than our future, though. Brin extrapolates the Transparent Society to global proportions. What will happen when personal computers become so cheap that citizens of the poorest Third World nations will have readier access to data than food or clean water?

The Transparent Society helps us see that future a little more clearly, so that we can plan for it.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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