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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Book Review: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?, David Brin, New York, NY: Perseus Books, 378 pages

It takes a fair amount of effort to appreciate The Transparent Society. But with effort and patience, the reader can get some important points from this book.

David Brin is a physicist and novelist who, in this non-fiction social science book, takes on a debate about the structure and nature of society in our onrushing technological world. Just about every new technology and application — surveillance cameras, databases, miniaturization, and so on — tends to erode privacy somehow. We should protect privacy, right?

The self-consciously contrarian Brin writes an extended argument against focusing so heavily on privacy, arguing particularly against what he calls “strong privacy advocates”: the community of cryptographers who, for a time, saw in crypto the potential to remake power arrangements in our society.

Unfortunately, taking on that particular argument gives the book a short shelf-life. Crypto is no longer looking so powerful, the world is not going to be shaken to its core by technology — or at least not very quickly — and so the playing field for the book’s main argument seems prematurely dated, even though the issues remain important.

Countering those who exalt privacy, Brin argues that transparency is the signal practice that will preserve the kind of society we most want to live in.

There is merit to this point. Openness and accountability are important values, and Brin makes the case for them. Privacy has been fetishized by some advocates and activists. This book usefully exposes that, and challenges it. His arguments have exposed Brin to caricature as anti-privacy, but he isn’t. He just doesn’t talk about it much in this book.

He doesn’t talk, for example, of rules that could preserve privacy up to some threshold, then dispense with it in the interest of accountability. That would be the Fourth Amendment, the principal legal dividing line between privacy and accountability in the United States today.

Transparency has many benefits. Government transparency is particularly important because of the unique powers governments have. Corporate transparency is good too. But Brin does not distinguish among these different types of institutions, or even consider whether individual privacy could perhaps co-exist with institutional transparency. This book is all about transparency, not subtleties.

The point that David Brin is trying to make in The Transparent Society is an important one. One wishes that the book were more tightly argued. It has a kitchen-sink quality, bringing in issues like copyright that really have little to do with Brin’s thesis.

Though The Transparent Society is an effort to read, expending that effort gets the reader into some important thinking about the kind of society we want to live in.


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[updated 05/11/05]

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