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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? Paperback – June 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

David Brin takes some of our worst notions about threats to privacy and sets them on their ears. According to Brin, there is no turning back the growth of public observation and inevitable loss of privacy--at least outside of our own homes. Too many of our transactions are already monitored: Brin asserts that cameras used to observe and reduce crime in public areas have been successful and are on the rise. There's even talk of bringing in microphones to augment the cameras. Brin has no doubt that it's only a matter of time before they're installed in numbers to cover every urban area in every developed nation.

While this has the makings for an Orwellian nightmare, Brin argues that we can choose to make the same scenario a setting for even greater freedom. The determining factor is whether the power of observation and surveillance is held only by the police and the powerful or is shared by us all. In the latter case, Brin argues that people will have nothing to fear from the watchers because everyone will be watching each other. The cameras would become a public resource to assure that no mugger is hiding around the corner, our children are playing safely in the park, and police will not abuse their power.

No simplistic Utopian, Brin also acknowledges the many dangers on the way. He discusses how open access to information can either threaten or enhance freedom. It is one thing, for example, to make the entire outdoors public and another thing to allow the cameras and microphones to snoop into our homes. He therefore spends a lot of pages examining what steps are required to assure that a transparent society evolves in a manner that enhances rather than restricts freedom. This is a challenging view of tomorrow and an exhilarating read for those who don't mind challenges to even the most well-entrenched cultural assumptions. --Elizabeth Lewis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Science fiction writer Brin (The Uplift War) departs from technological fantasy to focus on the social and political ramifications of our information age. While addressing the technology-vs.-privacy debate, he offers an informed overview of the issues and a useful historical account of how current policies evolved. Also beneficial are his descriptions of the different viewpoints on encryption software, online anonymity, the Clipper Chip and techno-jargon. But when Brin opines on these topics, the book suffers from superficiality. He appends remarks to the end of each chapter as this: "When you've been invited to a really neat party, try to dance with the one who brought you." His main point--that information and criticism should flow unrestricted--is lost in a melange of armchair social science theory and unrelated observations on the media, morality, identity and manners. After making a thoughtful case for discouraging encryption and encouraging free speech on the Web, he undercuts his position by calling for e-mail civility, "because people who lash out soon learn that it simply does not pay," then states that a balance can be achieved between these two extremes. Despite a strong beginning, Brin's book ultimately lacks clarity and originality.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738201448
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738201443
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #221,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Brin is a scientist, public speaker and world-known author. His 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.

David's latest novel - Existence - is set forty years ahead, in a near future when human survival seems to teeter along not just on one tightrope, but dozens, with as many hopeful trends and breakthroughs as dangers... a world we already see ahead. Only one day an astronaut snares a small, crystalline object from space. It appears to contain a message, even visitors within. Peeling back layer after layer of motives and secrets may offer opportunities, or deadly peril.

David's non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- deals with secrecy in the modern world. It won the Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association.

A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. Brin's 1989 ecological thriller - Earth - foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. David's novel Kiln People has been called a book of ideas disguised as a fast-moving and fun noir detective story, set in a future when new technology enables people to physically be in more than two places at once. A hardcover graphic novel The Life Eaters explored alternate outcomes to WWII, winning nominations and high praise.

David's science fictional Uplift Universe explores a future when humans genetically engineer higher animals like dolphins to become equal members of our civilization. These include the award-winning Startide Rising, The Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach. He also recently tied up the loose ends left behind by the late Isaac Asimov: Foundation's Triumph brings to a grand finale Asimov's famed Foundation Universe.

Brin serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI and nanotechnology, future/prediction and philanthropy.

As a public speaker, Brin shares unique insights -- serious and humorous -- about ways that changing technology may affect our future lives. He appears frequently on TV, including several episodes of "The Universe" and History Channel's "Life After People." He also was a regular cast member on "The ArciTECHS."

Brin's scientific work covers an eclectic range of topics, from astronautics, astronomy, and optics to alternative dispute resolution and the role of neoteny in human evolution. His Ph.D in Physics from UCSD - 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. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute. His technical patents directly confront some of the faults of old-fashioned screen-based interaction, aiming to improve the way human beings converse online.

Brin lives in San Diego County with his wife and three children.

You can follow David Brin:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Nicq MacDonald on July 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
Anyone who follows digerati publications such as Wired magazine and reads novels by Neal Stephenson already knows all about cryptography- that protective suit of armor that is supposed to keep all our private data safe from the thugs that would exploit it, whether they be the government, the megacorps, or the mob. In a future of ultra-surveillance, heavy crypto is the only way to hide.
David Brin throws this notion in the trash.
In "The Transparent Society", David Brin suggests that to embrace heavy crypto is to embark in an "arms race" of secrecy that lowly private citizens can't possibly win. The age of ultra-surveillance, universal wiretapping, and data regulation is upon us, and there's only one true way to avoid a scenario that seems straight out of Orwell- universal transparency and accountability. In Brin's view, the technologies of data retrieval and surveillance should be made available to anyone who would make use of them- neighborhood watches could monitor their streets, parents could keep track of their children, and, while governments and agencies would have the ability to spy upon citizens, citizens and watchdog groups would have the power to spy back- and thus hold the powers that be accountable. While we'd lose the anonymity provided by modern society, we would gain safety, not only from crime, but from abuse of authority. We'd be able to form new community bonds that utilize distributed computing to keep tabs on each other. And, most importantly, we'd gain peace of mind.
In theory, anyway.
While Brin's thesis is unique, formidable and provacative, it does seem to fall short in places.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 8, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is helpful to return to this book, from 1998, and to a follow on book, "the digital person" published in 2004, as context for the recent bru-ha-ha over NSA wiretapping without a warrant, and the loss to theft of tens of thousands of social security number and other personal information of veterans. Oh yes, somewhere in there, the FBI was hacked and companies like First Data are making fortunes compiling actionable profiles of individuals from disparate sources that were never approved for sharing.

This book focuses on the value of transparency and considers the key issue to be the war between secrecy versus accountability. The author directly confronts the issue of "who controls" information about YOU.

The author draws a useful comparison between the Internet, which sacrificed security for robust sharing, and the intelligence community, which chose security over sharing as its primordal principal.

The author observes that the Internet is having one undesireable effect, that of fragmenting communities that become less amenable to compromise and consensus. He points out that reality and locationally based discussion can lead to more effective consensus and compromise.

There is a useful discussion of "tagging" and how citizen truth squads and public commentary can serve as a useful antidote to corporate messages. The idea of "culture jamming" is picked up and treated at length by another excellent book, "NO LOGO."

Overall this book remains a standard in providing a detailed revoew of the issues and the capabilities surrounding digitial information about individuals. It is the author's view that WHO controls information, rather than WHO is elected, will determine the future of democracy.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Kling on November 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Suppose that the cost of surveillance technology continues to fall. What are our options?
(a) try to ban certain types of surveillance technologies altogether
(b) try to restrict surveillance technologies so that "we" have it but "they" don't
(c) try to escape surveillance technology by using encryption
(d) try to encourage broad access to surveillance technology
David Brin argues persuasively that (d) is the least problematic solution. The other strategies are both more difficult to execute and less likely to produce a desirable outcome. For example, with (c) you have the problem that encryption may not be perfectly reliable. Moreover, even if you can encrypt your bits, you cannot encrypt your atoms. So you still may be subject to surveillance by a network of cameras, by centralized databases, etc.
The greatest strength of the book is the way that Brin analyzes the situation from the perspective of different opponents to his position. The greatest weakness is that he rarely delves into details about how to implement his overall recommendation. What incentives need to be created? How do laws need to be changed, etc.? He offers hints, and occasional examples, but leaves a lot out.
The relevance of this book has increased dramatically as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11. For example, on p. 320 there is this passage:
"Terrorists operate under cloaks of anonymity and secrecy...This is especially true of their concealed finances...the real impulse to force them open may only come after some band of terrorists manages to kill thousands..."
What Brin advocates is not a stronger police state but a more open system that allows any citizen to trace how money flows.
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