Privacy

Tonight I will be talking (9pm Eastern) to David Brin, Hugo and Nebula award winning author of the Uplift Wars series, The Postman (made into a fairly unrecognizable post apocalypse movie starring Kevin Kostner), Earth, The Practice Effect,  a novel in Asimov’s Foundation Universe and other books you can find on his website.  We will talk for a bit about what it is like creating universes all your own, but I would like to focus on his non-fiction book-length essay called The Transparent Society.

In this book, written in 1998, very presciently describes a society where the citizenry will be empowered by the spread of information to anyone who wants to obtain it. Filled with counter-intuitive points of view, the book takes us through the choices we face in a society where, as Larry Ellison of Oracle has said, “privacy is dead; get over it.”  First off, though, he notes that privacy is a very recent development in human society. It is an artifact of modern urban environments and modern transportation systems. Before the industrial revolution, there was no real privacy. People were born, grew up and died in small communities where there were (and could be) no  real secrets. And now, the combination of integrated databases and ubiquitous surveillance capability, privacy is no longer something we can count on.

The challenge then becomes whether we can use these tools to monitor government and the large corporations who have come to resemble government agencies in their power over the citizenry and control of citizens’ data.  Some people, like Bruce Schneier (Here at VS with James Fallows) believe David is underestimating the impact of the asymetric power relation between the elites in the state (and in large corporations) and the citizenry.

David replies by noting that we can divide the elites, supported by the ubiquity of new citizen devices:

How have we fought this? One early Enlightenment trick was divide the elites. Sic ’em on each other! Unions vs. management, tort lawyers vs. megacorporations, regulators vs moguls, and activist Nongovernmental Organizations against any power center you can name. NGOs, the boomer innovation, let citizens clump en-masse, pooling influence to increase their common “Schneier exponent” and use information advantageously. It’s an enlightenment method of great power and flexibility. Each person can find and join an NGO suited to any passion or interest.

But the next step in people empowerment is even more impressive — those burgeoning “smart mobs” Howard Rheingold and Vernor Vinge talk about, and now Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It’s agile. It’s wired. Every generation innovates, or the Enlightenment dies.

Oh, I can hear cynical snorts. Yes, it’s flawed! Elites keep rediscovering tricks of secret collusion. Still, if it’s hopeless, how come we’re having this conversation?

Almost monthly, we hear of some angry cop arresting a citizen on trumped “privacy violations,” for using a cellcam or MP3 to record an interaction with authority. (In Wired, twelve years ago, I forecast these “rodneykings.”) And each month, judges toss the arrests, forcing police to apologize. Every time. So much for those power-exponents.

Of course, the elites respond, with cops claiming that there is no citizen right to record their actions.  David and I will discuss this conflict, and his belief in its resolution in the interests of the citizenry.

We will also talk about alien contact and SETI.  Because maybe there are real threats out there. (Or, perhaps not.)

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