Ten Years Ago at Grasping Reality: May 22, 2008

CFP Panel on the Transparent Society: David Brin's Book Ten Years Later: Hoisted Ten Years Later

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It is now 20 years since David Brin wrote The Transparent Society. Book holds up very well, all things considering: CFP Panel on the Transparent Society: David Brin's Book Ten Years Later: Michael Froomkin:

The Transparent Society Ten Years Later : This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of David Brin's controversial book, "The Transparent Society". The book argues that in the face of the explosion of sensors, cheap storage, and cheap data processing we should adopt strategies of vision over concealment. A world in which not just transactional information, but essentially all information about us will be collected, stored, and sorted is, Brin says, inevitable. The only issue left to be decided is who will have access to this information; he argues that freedom, and even some privacy, are more likely to flourish if everybody - not just elites - has access to this flood of data. The book remains controversial and much-talked-about. The panel will explore how Brin's claims hold up ten years later and whether (or how far) we're on the road to a Transparent Society.

Here is my presentation:

I am a sidelight. I am here as a tame economist. The political and sociological questions are, I think, more important. Nevertheless I have a question to address: does turning the cameras not on Big Brother but on the other brothers--all the other brothers that are economic actors--help?

The first and most important of the not-Big Brothers for you--for each instantiation of "you"--is your particular employer. That is Medium-Sized Brother. The answer is that it isn't going to help, or not much. Employees of financial service firms will find their employers going through their trash in search of evidence of insider trading, and in the process employers will pick up every piece of information they could want and more. Cash-register operators in grocery stores find that their scanning frequency data plus the cameras on the cash registers give the store manager information about every gossip episode--and how costly it is in terms of items not scanned in that minute. There will be Taylorism, Taylorism rampant, Taylorism rampant in nearly every job where you have a boss.

Now this has an upside and a badside. The upside: My seventeen-year-old is a lifeguard. You clock in at the start of your shift, using nineteenth-century punch-card surveillance techology. You clock out at the end of your shift. But you don't clock out for breaks--hence some lifeguards shade their thirty-minute breaks into fifty-minute breaks, and the others grumble but don't want to be snitches, and morale falls, and the efficiency with which lifeguarding services are provided drops. Cheap cameras and infinite videotape scanned by artificially-intelligences vast, cold, and unsympathetic will allow the boss to see which lifeguards are pulling their weight and which are not, and so produce better morale and better outcomes Taylorist regimentation and restriction of individual employees' autonomy, discretion, and ability to goof off are, one might say, going to be used where they are good: where they lead to a lower-cost and a higher-quality outcome bosses will use them, and where they don't bosses won't. These Coasian arguments are trumps within economics, they are powerful, but they may not be right.'

The downsides of Medium-Sized Brother watching you: First of all, corporate bureaucracies are not rational and rationalized entities--the will to dominate and the desire to cover your butt make it certain that its surveillance powers will be badly used. Second, the coming of surveillance tools to the boss greatly alters the balance of power between bosses and workers, and eliminates a great deal of what we might think of as capillary income redistribution from rich bosses to poorer workers.

Here David Brin's solution to what are largely political problems--turn the cameras on the powerful so that the hive mind can look up at Big Brother looking down--does not, I think, apply. Absent a strong union, the boss simply does not care. Perhaps the hive mind looking up will be able to rank employers as to their relative desirability, and this will put some pressure on bosses to play nice. Perhaps not.

Then there are all the call them Little Brothers--the people who want to sell you things that you may need to be persuaded against your better judgment to buy. And then there are the people who want to figure out whether you will be a more expensive customer to serve--your health insurer, for example--so that they can decide not to let you be a customer.

Here the problem is that you--all of the yous out there--need an aggregator. Little Brothers can figure out how to use the raw data that the cameras spit out to determine what they want to know about how to sell or not sell to you, about how to manage you. The yous have a harder time figuring out how to use the information the cameras spit out to figure out how to manage the Little Brothers--you don't have a big interest in putting in the time and analytical effort to figure out how to manage one Little Brother, even though all the yous together do. Where these aggregators come from so that the yous can analyze the Little Brothers is not so clear...

David Brin wrote, I think, a wonderful book. And complaining that his solution--turn the cameras around--doesn't solve all problems is like complaining that the portions of the free ice cream aren't large enough. Nevertheless, I do complain.

And let me stop there...