The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom?

By David Brin | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Since this book appeared in hardcover, the world has plunged faster into dilemmas concerning openness and the flow of information. Political careers rise and crash as personal secrets go public in excruciating detail. The "glass house effect" (covered in Chapter Nine) operates with a vengeance as accusers fall victim to the same kind of disclosure they used against their opponents. The central lesson of this book -- that light can shine both ways -- appears to be a hard one for politicians to accept.

At the same time, new voices are raising openness onto the public agenda. In late 1998, Senator Daniel Moynihan published a slim but incisive book, Secrecy: The American Experience, contending that our human tendency to cover-up our own mistakes often leads to catastrophe, both personal and national. Moynihan the Democrat and Republican George F. Will have both counseled that secrecy fosters ignorance, and ignorance guarantees folly -- a theme explored in parts one and two of The Transparency Society.

The furor over Social Security numbers (Chapter Eight) has escalated. After passing laws requiring that the SSN appear on drivers' licenses and passports (to help catch fugitives and illegal immigrants) the conservative Congress abruptly reversed itself, pressured by privacy issues. Another reversal concerned use of ID numbers for health insurance portability. We appear to be caught between our need for efficiency and fears that Big Brother may take over when each citizen gets a unique code or number. People talk soberly about "trade-offs" without pondering another possibility -- that we might both have our cake and eat it too, by creating a synergy between efficiency and freedom (Chapter Seven).

The issue of "who owns information" has also intensified. New technologies let people download digital copies of copyrighted music for free, bypassing traditional distribution systems and denying royalties to the original creators. Meanwhile, the world of universal surveillance seems to leap closer each month, as when managers of a cellular telephone system admitted they can track a customer's unit down to the area of a city block, sometimes when the phone isn't even turned on. And the microcameras discussed in Chapter One keep multiplying, getting smaller and cheaper every day.

Recent movies like Enemy of the State and The Siege exploit widespread unease about an era when authority figures may know and control everything. And yet, the "henchman effect" makes life increasingly hard

-iii-

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