"Transparent" Monoculture

Reilly Jones (Reilly@compuserve.com)
Thu, 19 Mar 1998 17:21:47 -0500


There have been several recent references on the E-list to David Brin's
utopian call for the end of privacy through social engineering a
"Transparent Society." Such an idea works very well within a common moral
consensual polity, indeed the idea is ancient. It is at base a renaming of
"Holy Watchfulness" as practiced in monasteries around the world and in
early Puritan villages in colonial America. It is a monkish ideal.

There are no visible surface problems with it in this monkish context, the
benefits within the polity are substantial. However, there are serious,
even intractable problems with it when it is proposed to be extended across
polities that have conflicting ideals and worldviews at their core. In
particular, you cannot extend "Holy Watchfulness" across the boundary
between extropic and entropic worldviews, i.e., between the culture of life
and the culture of death.

John Stuart Mills wrote in "On Liberty" (1859): "Society can and does issue
its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any
mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a
social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,
since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer
means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and
enslaving the soul itself."

The Transparent Society certainly penetrates deeply into "the details of
life," and can easily be seen as a "social tyranny" worse than "political
oppression." When democratic society imposes the wrong mandates of the
culture of death (taxpayer-supported murder of unborn children and the sick
and elderly) on those who are opposed to it, how does it escape "enslaving
the soul" by coercively making us party to such brutality? If your
neighbors want to strengthen the culture of death, then they must be
stopped by political action, action which must begin with secret plotting.
With transparency, you wouldn't be able to meet and plot about political
agendas in any sphere of institutional life, your enemies would see your
opening moves in advance, a recipe for tyranny. The advantage goes to
those who see the formulation of the first move prior to implementation,
not to those who see the responses.

As I have written in "Extropy", "irreducible first-person subjectivity,
with its private inner life and moral autonomy, is central to the concept
of an individual." The fundamental mechanism in nature is to close off the
flow of information outward. We must reach out on our *own* terms. The
Transparent Society would have us surrender this private subjectivity to
complete visibility and the potential scientifically-sanctioned
manipulation of our conceptual environment.

Not only must we have control of what information flows outward, but
growing up and maturing is learning to select which patterns our attention
should be focused on by progressively blocking out more and more of our
environment. The Transparent Society sends us back to infancy, a cacophony
of environmental input. As you mature, you want your door locked, you want
isolation, you want time and space to formulate and test unique thoughts,
then control of which thoughts are released into the open. The Transparent
Society is immature. It appears as though it could develop into something
akin to the unreflective oral society, all surface and immediacy, the
stagnant 'soaking up existence' of primitivism, not deep and long-term
thought characteristic of the literate, ascending society. Private thought
itself, i.e., the idea of thinking privately, as opposed to rhetorical
discourse in the public square, developed in monasteries *protected* from
being transparent to the outside world as they preserved literate culture,
and in private libraries after Gutenberg's invention. It is difficult to
see how private thought, which leads to cultural diversity, is fostered
when we're never alone and never protected from our enemies within the
culture of death.

The Transparent Society can only foster a monoculture as it spreads across
the world. Isaiah Berlin, in "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" (1990),
writes of the intractable conflict between one world universalism of
rational tolerance, and the promotion of true individual liberty, true
freedom which can only arise from within a "culture" or moral consensual
polity:

"If free creation, spontaneous development along one's own native lines,
not inhibited or suppressed by the dogmatic pronouncements of an ťlite of
self-appointed arbiters, insensitive to history, is to be accorded supreme
value; if authenticity and variety are not to be sacrificed to authority,
organization, centralization, which inexorably tend to uniformity and the
destruction of what men hold dearest - their language, their institutions,
their habits, their form of life, all that has made them what they are -
then the establishment of one world, organized on universally accepted
rational principles - the ideal society - is not acceptable."

This one world ideal is opposed by the formulation of freedom by Johann
Gottfried Herder: "'the will to live one's own regional, local life, to
develop one's own eigentŁmlich values, to sing one's own songs, to be
governed by one's own laws in one's own home, not to be assimilated to a
form of life that belongs to all and therefore to no one.' Freedom, Hegel
once observed, is bey sich selbst seyn - to be at home, not to be impinged
upon by what is not one's own, by alien obstacles to self-realization
whether on the part of individuals or civilizations."

This formulation of freedom within a consensual moral polity would work
wonderfully in the Transparent Society, but not at all *between* different
polities. This difficulty is insoluble short of establishing a worldwide
monoculture. The culture of life is inherently polycentric, the culture of
death is the default monoculture.

Samuel Huntington in "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World
Order" (1996) has written: "At the end of the twentieth century the concept
of a universal civilization helps justify Western cultural dominance of
other societies and the need for those societies to ape Western practices
and institutions. The non-Wests see as Western what the West sees as
universal. What Westerners herald as benign global integration, such as
the proliferation of worldwide media, non-Westerners denounce as nefarious
Western imperialism. To the extent that non-Westerners see the world as
one, they see it as a threat. In 1913 international trade was at record
highs and in the next few years nations slaughtered each other in
unprecedented numbers. If international commerce at that level could not
prevent war, when can it? The evidence simply does not support the
liberal, internationalist assumption that commerce promotes peace.... In
Muslim eyes Western secularism, irreligiosity, and hence immorality are
worse evils than the Western Christianity that produced them. Why
Americans believe that conflict is good within their own society and yet
bad between societies is a fascinating question which, to the best of my
knowledge, no one has seriously studied."

Non-Western civilizations do not want to be transparent to the West in any
way, shape or form. Criticism of sacred Islamic or Hindu texts which give
meaning and direction to life is destructive. Those cultures properly
recognize it as such and resist it strenuously. Efforts to persuade them
to open themselves to the Transparent Society will result in world
conflict.

The argument for extending "Holy Watchfulness" across disparate moral
polities is actually no argument at all, but rather a simple displacement
of whatever used to be on the altar, in favor of "criticism" which will
lead us all to the mystical end of "accountability."

Why should accountability be the end of this utopian social engineering?
Barbara Tuchman in "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam" wrote:
"Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue
down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to
direct their steps. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter
course, is the most repugnant option in government." Her answer to this
fact of history was not the end of the Transparent Society, accountability,
rather the moral society: "Aware of the controlling power of ambition,
corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government
we should look for the test of character first. And the test should be
moral courage." The moral society is, in fact, the only possible answer,
for where does the will to hold accountable come from?

The moral society must aim at peace, not accountability, if it is to secure
liberty. Santayana wrote in "Dominations and Powers" (1951): "Liberty
requires peace. War would impose the most terrible slavery, and you would
never be free if you were always compelled to fight for your freedom. This
circumstance is ominous: by it the whole sky of liberty is at once clouded
over. We are drawn away violently from irresponsible play to a painful
study of facts and to the endless labor of coping with probable enemies."

So peace is the fundamental ingredient on which liberty thrives, not
accountability. And how will the Transparent Society protect us from our
very real and menacing external probable enemies, when they can peer into
our private lives with unbelievable levels of detail? This is a gaping
hole in utopia, that international agreements, global trade and creeping
world governance will do nothing to help. Accountability never is a
permanent guarantee of minority rights nor is it a protection against
"frog-in-a-pot" style tyranny. Individual freedom, that is, guaranteed
minority rights and protection from tyranny, depends on the right to secede
from polities gone bad, that have sunk into the culture of death.

The end of the Transparent Society is bogus and so is the means to that
end, criticism to reduce error. Criticism erodes the will, lowers risk
taking, leads to conformity. Criticism to reduce error is a small subset
compared to criticism to change direction, to break down cultural
worldviews. Certainty of direction in a leader is infectious to the whole
society, it overrides the utility of criticism. The critical society is
not vital absent certainty of leadership. Also, the passion of abolition,
which is never absent amongst a large enough population, is criticism for
destruction's sake. Criticism blunts intimacy and trust. Self-selected
criticism is all the rage, shallow credentialism begets smugness begets a
high-walled ego. People who think they can take criticism generally are
ignoring it, the will is sapped if it reaches the heart. It's not
blunders, but direction that counts. It's the difference between
efficiency and effectiveness. Criticism doesn't breed affection, it
destroys friendship. From an evolutionarily adaptive standpoint, asking
for criticism is simply finding out who your friends are. Scientific
criticism these days has devolved to swiping dwindling grant money and
fleeting fame from each other.

There is another fatal flaw in the ability to make a transition to the
Transparent Society. The flaw involves the idea that the masters of the
world will altruistically roll over and play dead for the benefit of the
masses.

James Dale Davidson & Lord William Rees-Mogg offer this master-rich
scenario in "The Sovereign Individual" (1997): "The good news about
individual liberation and autonomy will seem to be bad news to many who are
not among the cognitive elite.... Many of the assurances of equality that
Western people have grown to take for granted in the twentieth century are
destined to die with it.... Markets always place the greatest pressures on
the weakest holders. Indeed, that is part of their virtue. They promote
efficiency by removing assets from weak hands.... Increasing amounts of
wealth will find their way into the hands of the ablest entrepreneurs and
venture capitalists worldwide. Globalization, along with other
characteristics of the information economy, will tend to increase the
income earned by the most talented individuals in each field. The
Sovereign Individuals of the information economy will not be warlords but
masters of specialized skills, including entrepreneurship and investment.
Yet the feudal hundred-to-one ratio [of peasants to knights] seems set to
return.... Business relations will gravitate toward reliance upon 'circles
of trust.' Due to encryption, which gives individuals an ability to steal
undetected, honesty will be a more highly valued characteristic of business
associates."

"Protection will become increasingly technological rather than juridical.
The lower classes will be walled out. The move to gated communities is all
but inevitable. Walling out troublemakers is an effective as well as
traditional way of minimizing criminal violence in times of weak central
authority.... New survival strategies for persons of lower intelligence
will evolve, involving greater concentration on development of leisure
skills, sports abilities, and crime, as well as service to the growing
numbers of Sovereign Individuals as income inequality within jurisdictions
rises.... We expect increasing numbers of low-income persons in Western
countries who previously would have depended upon transfer payments from
the state to affiliate with wealthy households as retainers.... In the
next century we shall witness the creation of a world superclass, perhaps
of 500 million very rich people, with 100 million being rich enough to
emerge as Sovereign Individuals [out of 7 billion - 70 to 1 ratio of
servants to masters]."

Such a scenario, based almost entirely on the acknowledged need for strong
encryption of financial transactions, makes one question the possible
acquiescence of the master-rich to the proposed Transparent Society, which
would allow their servant-poor to observe them in total detail. Such a
prospect seems ludicrous on the face of it.

Thomas Aquinas wrote: "For those among them who excel by their intellect
naturally dominate the others; as to those who do not shine by their
intellect, but whose body is robust, they seem to be destined by nature to
servitude." This is an eternal verity, and cannot be changed by the
Transparent Society or any form of organization whatsoever. In our
technologically oriented society, the highest intellects able to manipulate
matter to whatever ends they desire will dominate all, no matter what. It
is foolish, self-delusional and dangerously destructive to presume
otherwise. The utopian nature of the Transparent Society is clearly on
display here.

Lastly, the greatest flaw in any lasting achievements the Transparent
Society might produce if it were possible to be successfully installed
worldwide, has to do with human nature, with the destructiveness of
self-love. The flaw is not a visible surface flaw but a deep flaw, not
easily seen.

In "The New Criterion" June 1996, an article by Joseph Epstein about La
Rochefoucauld takes the position that only a true gentleman can live in the
Transparent Society. "This Ítre vrai, or true being or genuine person, is
someone who attains as much lucidity about his own motives and those of
people he deals with as possible - no easy achievement when everything in
society encourages the perpetuation of falsehoods, the exchange of lies,
and the proliferation of illusions. L'Ítre vrai combines in La
Rochefoucauld with l'honnÍte homme, the true gentlemen, who lives without
pretension. Such a man has no need of pretension. 'It is a sign of true
goodness to be willing to live always in the sight of good' - just as 'the
truly honest man is without conceit' and 'lives in public as he does in
private.'"

But, and this is crucial to the success of the Transparent Society, "Still,
make no mistake, to live with such lucidity and in such harmony is all but
impossible. What with the maelstrom of self-love and self-interest in
which we live, the added force of the passions that addle our minds, the
banging about that the winds of fortune subject us to... nothing is more
difficult, in La Rochefoucauld's view, than correct judgment."

This self-love, or amour-propre, which torpedoes correct judgment, is the
Transparent Society's greatest difficulty, even given a common moral
polity.

"'Amour-propre,' as La Rochefoucauld notes, is like 'the eye that can see
everything but itself.' In the first of his supplementary maxims, La
Rochefoucauld describes it, in part, thus: 'Amour-propre is the love of
oneself and of all other things for one's own sake; it makes men idolize
themselves and would cause them to tyrannize over their neighbors had they
the opportunity.... Nothing equals the impetuosity of its desires, the
depths of its schemes, or the ingenuity of its methods.... It is
impossible to fathom the depths or pierce the gloom the abyss in which it
dwells.... There it conceives, breeds, and rears, unknowingly, a vast
number of appetites and dislikes - some of so monstrous a shape that it
fails to recognize them when exposed to the light of day, or cannot bring
itself to own them. Out of the night that covers it are born the absurd
ideas it entertains of itself; thence come its errors, its ignorance, its
clumsiness, and its fatuous beliefs about itself - its notion that its
feelings are dead when they are but asleep, that it has lost its activity
when once it is at rest, and that it has got rid of the appetites it has
for the moment appeased.' To be human is to have amour-propre; to have
amour-propre is to be imprisoned by it; yet to understand that one is in
fact imprisoned does not ever quite set one free."

Even in the Transparent Society, as on the E-list, we will fail to see our
monstrous appetites and desires, or fail to own them. Our Puritan villages
and monasteries with their "Holy Watchfulness" will break up and give way
to privacy once again. It is human nature that individuals do not bear
scrutiny. The Transparent Society, like all utopias, is an immature revolt
against nature.

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Reilly Jones | Philosophy of Technology:
Reilly@compuserve.com | The rational, moral and political relations
| between 'How we create' and 'Why we create'