Self-described crackpot and prolific science-fiction writer Brin (Infinity’s Shore, 1996, etc.) ponders the technological threats to and possibilities for freedom in the not-too-distant future.
Privacy is assailed from all sides today. Electronic surveillance becomes more widespread even as it becomes less intrusive. Data on many aspects of our lives are gathered, bought, and sold. We are enmeshed in a web of electronic noise, a cyberworld of gossiping and snooping. Clearly, say those who would protect our privacy, regulation of such surveillance is necessary. Brin argues just the opposite: Rather than vainly attempting to save privacy, we should strive to create a society that is ever more transparent, ever more exposed. Technology, no matter how we may try to regulate it, will find ever more sophisticated and subtle ways to snoop. And the regulators will have to be regulated by another layer of government watchdogs. So, says Brin, let openness rule. Make bosses as accountable as employees, have government be watched by its citizens as much as it watches. Much as we feel a sense of privacy in the openness of a restaurant, so might a transparent society provide a sense, and the reality, of privacy much better than one in which surveillance is hidden but nevertheless there. Much depends on how humans decide to behave, and while Brin is hardly naive about human nature, he sees that in a society already reasonably tolerant we might reach a point when the private matters of everyone are both readily accessible and simply uninteresting.
Brin’s writing is eclectic, wandering and fun. Some of what he says is, well, crackpot. But Brin is also no anarchistic dreamer, no “cypher punk,” as he puts it. The transparent, unregulated future of freedom is only a possibility, a result of long processes of experimentation and gained wisdom.