The Transparent Society

by F.

When questioned about privacy of personal information, Scott McNealy once replied, “You have no privacy. Get over it.” This is not what people wanted to hear and I believe he later recanted or softened his statement. But I remember thinking at the time, “Yeah. Pretty much.” David Brin took this idea further in his book The Transparent Society, pieces of which appeared in the December 1996 issue of Wired

I bought Brin’s book, read it, and concluded it was shit, more or less for the same reason Publisher’s Weekly did: “Despite a strong beginning, Brin’s book ultimately lacks clarity and originality.” Brin is amazingly smart, but he doesn’t know how to write about policy and seems infatuated with his own entirely unoriginal—and deductively derived—ideas. While a pro in his field, he shows a classic error of hubris in The Transparent Society. His thesis is “that information and criticism should flow unrestricted” but his message (again quoting PW) gets “lost in a melange of armchair social science theory and unrelated observations on the media, morality, identity and manners.”

Whether information “should” or “should not” flow unrestricted, it is doing so. I was talking to someone the other day about “partitioning our lives”—in other words, you may be a hippy on the weekends and an investment banker on the weekdays, with little overlap between these two spheres. You hang out on the beach and surf with your hippy friends and go to wine tastings and the opera with your rich banking clients. And the two worlds remain disjoint. Because of free information flow, I don’t think you can do that anymore.

Here’s an example. I have professional relationship with a person I’ll call “Frank,” who is not a public figure. Within 15 minutes, using only free resources on the web (i.e., no Lexis or anything like that) I learned this:

  1. Frank’s age
  2. Frank’s college
  3. Frank’s father’ occupation
  4. Frank’s father’s employers
  5. Frank’s spouse’s identity and age
  6. What Frank’s spouse does for a living
  7. What college the spouse went to, including year of graduation
  8. How much their house is worth
  9. Directions to their house
  10. Whether they have children

I could dive deeper but there is no point. I don’t need to know anything about Frank, really. I just picked an arbitrary name and did the search to see what was floating on the surface of data-ocean. It turns out: a lot. Obvious moral? You can’t partition your life anymore, I don’t think. We are either living in or about to turn into “the transparent society.” It doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. I tend to think it is a good thing, because more information probably makes an economy and a society work better. But there is no way to tell what the outcome will be.