Re: "Transparent" Monoculture

Damien R. Sullivan (
Thu, 19 Mar 1998 19:32:52 -0800 (PST)

As someone who has actually read Brin's manuscript, let me summarize the
thesis of the Transparent Society. (1) Exhortations to be good have been tried
for thousands of years by all major and most minor religions, and have had
rather limited success in changing human nature. (2) Mutual accountability,
openness, and criticism have given us the low corruption of liberal
democracies (30 years ago we had a Watergate; today we worry about the Vice
President making fundraising calls from his office), relative safety from
crime and terrorism, and scientific progress. (3) Snooping technology will
outstrip secrecy technology; encryption is no good if I can watch your
keyboard, or read your computer. And a world of secrecy, if that secrecy is
not ironclad, is less stable than a networked society where everyone watches
each other. A transparent society is coming, the big decision is (4) whether
we try passing privacy laws which the rich, the gov't, and criminals will
ignore or bypass or whether we try to make everyone open.

Also: criticism is the great antidote to error, but it is also one of the
things people hate to get. The danger of leaders is that they need it more
than anyone, but can do the most to suppress it. The fact that Western
societies are nice places to live has a lot to do with our having forced our
leaders to swallow more and more criticism. And this has nothing to do with
altruism. John says the ideal world is one where everyone else is obedient
and open. Right; everyone feels that way, which is where transparency comes
from: everyone picking at everyone else. Mutual Assured Surveillance.

And Brin would be happy if the masses could somehow retain privacy while
subjecting the powerful to scrutiny; he just doesn't believe it. And between
general secrecy and general openness he thinks the evidence shows that open
societies are ones people would prefer to live in.

Thus Brin; now on to criticize.

On Mar 19, 5:21pm, Reilly Jones wrote:

> 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

No, the fundamental mechanism of life is to maintain a material boundary
between you and everything else, and to try to make more things into 'you'.
As for information, humans love sharing it. Privacy is a modern taste and
luxury; most societies couldn't afford it. And America has more of it than
anyone, partly because we have so much space to have it in. Our opinions are
not absolute.

> 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,

The TS hardly sends us back to infancy. It allows us to look where we please;
it forces no one to look. As for creative isolation, that is related more to
seclusion -- the freedom from distraction -- than to secrecy, which is needed
for trade secrets, which patents are a replacement for.

> The Transparent Society can only foster a monoculture as it spreads across
> the world. Isaiah Berlin, in "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" (1990),

It's happening now: the monoculture of diversity, of cosmopolitanism. Each
great city is becoming culturally more alike: a place where you can find
anything you want, be anyone you want to be. The transhumanist endpoint of
this process is a single species -- of shapechangers. Who will not allow each
other to kill or abuse other members of the society. Non-members are up for

> 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

The basic conflict is that Western culture doesn't see itself as a culture.
It sees itself as a bunch of individuals interacting according to minimal
rules. It doesn't impose itself on other cultures; it's just that its
individuals are so much richer, and individuals from other cultures keep on

> recognize it as such and resist it strenuously. Efforts to persuade them
> to open themselves to the Transparent Society will result in world
> conflict.

Who needs persuasion? We're launching commerical spy satellites and living
high off of scrutinized networks; they're being shot and robbed by their

> 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 has been tried, and failed. I know of no reliable test for
moral courage. And the will to hold others accountable is inherent to a
gossiping species. A far stronger argument against transparency is not that
it will not work, but that it will work too well, as in in village and small
towns... and small towns in America are wonderful occasional sources of
scandalous behavior performed by the town leaders behind their closed doors.
By those who have avoided being an equal part of their transparent society.

> 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

This is the thinking that wanted in the 1950s to make the US into a police
state: "We must become like the USSR to defeat it." It was Edward Teller who
pointed out that openness was our strength, not our weakness; that the free
exchange of information supported science, the markets, and responsible
government; and that the benefits thereof would far outweigh any losses due
to the KGB being able to wander around at will.

In Popperian terms: he was not proved wrong.

> 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

Among bureaucrats, yes. Among entrepreneurs it leads to the failure of the
misguided firms and the success of the strong and adaptable.

> ignoring it, the will is sapped if it reaches the heart. It's not
> blunders, but direction that counts. It's the difference between

> 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.


> 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

Already discarded; there's no altruism. Probably no coherent set of world
masters, either.

> "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

I'd rather live in San Francisco with cameras than in the gated communities
I've seen.

> 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.

Individuals have lived with scrutiny for a long, long, long time. Not being
out of sight was the only real law-enforcement.

-xx- GSV Polypedant X-)

For all the gold Ewan Gillies ever found
Could not buy him peace and freedom
>From the memory of the sound
Of the waves on St. Kilda's rocky shore.