RE: The Future of Secrecy

From: Camp, Christopher (
Date: Wed Jun 18 2003 - 13:56:14 MDT

  • Next message: Robin Hanson: "RE: The Future of Secrecy"

    It turns out that economists can trace most of the social problems in the
    world to secrets, things some people know that other people do not. It also
    turns out that verifiable secrets are not really much of a problem. When
    there is something that someone knows, but they could reveal and prove it to
    someone else, a variety of institutions can induce people to reveal that
    information. So the real problem is unverifiable secrets.

    I'm not sure I follow you here.  I'm going to take secrecy and imperfect
    information to be virtually synonymous and I think that any level of
    imperfect information is going to associate itself with some level of market
    inefficiency - i.e. increased cost.  If a market mechanism exists to reveal
    some secrets it should still be observed that this mechanism (as described
    above (i.e.: "induction to reveal") takes some amount of time and that every
    moment where some level of secrecy remains is a moment where some level of
    market inefficiency remains.   So from this perspective I don't think the
    problem can be so quickly reduced to "unverifiable secrets" - but of course
    we are not working from the same base of information and although I am
    familiar with many of your papers it is quite likely I've missed something
    that may resolve this problem - if so please point me in the right
    For example, if a nation wants to make an arms treaty, but is concerned
    about the possibility of the other side cheating, they might each agree to
    open their military bases or production facilities to inspection.  When
    corporate directors want to convince investors that they are not stealing
    the money, they hire accountants to reveal corporate spending.  When
    individuals want to insure a home, they allow an insurance company
    representative to inspect their home's current condition.
    So why do individuals still have secrets?  Some of their secrets are
    verifiable, but only at a prohibitive cost.  
    It seems a bit strong to say some secrets are verifiable.  At this point I
    think there is only justification for saying some secrets may be verifiable.
    Verifiability seems to be a high order  procedure that rests itself upon
    concepts like truth - which seem to be rather undeveloped.  Thus the cost
    may be more than the universe could bear - that is to say...verification may
    be impossible.
    This is, at some level, a philosophical  question and given the perceived
    lack of information we humans have and the open ended questions of other
    minds, translation(quine/wittgenstein), truth (as evidenced by recent
    extro-list threads) etc... we may not want to push things beyond what the
    evidence allows.  
    It should be noted that as a practical matter verifiability has it's place -
    but there should be some attention given to the possibility that these words
    and concepts may be employed incorrectly by their operators.     
    Insurance companies could set insurance rates based on how carefully you
    drive, but it is now too
    expensive for them to put a recorder on your car that records exactly how
    carefully you drive.  This may change in the next decade, however.  And in
    general as costs fall we should expect to see people agreeing to reveal more
    verifiable info about themselves to solve secrecy problems.
    Some of the secrets people have, however, are in their heads.  Is my spouse
    still happy with me, or is he thinking of leaving?  Does my business partner
    really plan to work hard, or is he hoping I'll do most of the work?  Now
    some of this info is revealed in our observable behavior so far; humans have
    evolved to be "leaky", and to be good at detecting such leaks in the
    behavior of others.  
    Leaks are subject to the difficulties of interpretation - the process of
    interpretation/translation does not seem to have perfected itself as a
    science but I certainly put some value in the utterances, faces and body
    language of my spouse - I'm just not sure, at the ultimate level - that I'm
    entirely right.
    And as we have been discussing in the "Why believe the
    truth" thread, this leakiness has induced evolution to bias our beliefs, in
    order to impress others.
    The need to be close enough to others to detect such leaks is one of the key
    obstacles limiting telecommuting and other long-distance relationships that
    otherwise seem so attractive.  Some day cheap long-distance communication
    may have enough bandwidth to allow us to detect such leaks as we usually do,
    and we may perhaps also develop automation that can detect such leaks up
    close, so we don't need the bandwidth.
    How leaky will our distant descendants be?  How far will they want to go,
    and be able to go, in agreeing to reveal their secrets to each other, to
    avoid the social problems that secrets cause?  It seems plausible that our
    descendants will be constructed so that they can allow outsiders to directly
    inspect the internal state of their minds, to verify the absence of certain
    harmful secrets.  It also seems plausible that our descendants will feel a
    pressure to standardize the internal state of their mind to facilitate such
    inspection, just as corporations now feel pressure to standardize their
    Of course we already expect other pressures to standardize, such as to take
    advantage of improvements in mind modules.  Even so, our descendants will
    probably not reveal everything to everyone; not all possible agreements will
    be made, and there will remain some advantages to non-standard mind parts,
    which can then become costly to verify (sure I see these bits here in your
    mind, but what the hell to they mean?).
    Nevertheless, as an overall long term trend, I'm leaning toward expecting
    only a move toward a transparent society (a la Brin), but then toward
    transparent minds as well.  And one disturbing implication of this is that
    we may well evolve to become even *more* self-deceived than we are now,
    as believing one thing and thinking another becomes even harder than now.
    Increased 'self-deception' does seem possible even in Brinworlds. 
    It may be the case that transparency reaches its apex when 'the other' is
    eliminated or subsumed.   Aside from this 'solution' I'm not sure whether
    we'd be able to conclusively say that secrecy has been eliminated even in a
    culture where technological wizardry allows the public access to a variety
    of sources of personal information (The Ultimate Reality TV - where
    utterances, facial expressions and general body movements, continuous
    nano-level brain scans, etc...).  All of this 'transparency' may still not
    give access to the subjective experience of the entity under observation.
    Despite all this information we may still not have access to the direct
    experience - the method of translation employed by the entity in question -
    how speech, brain waves and movement translate into actual experience.  
    Robin Hanson
    Assistant Professor of Economics, George Mason University
    MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030-4444
    703-993-2326  FAX: 703-993-2323 

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