FWDThinking Episode 22: If Privacy is a myth, what should we do about it?

Alistair Croll in conversation with David Brin, author of The Transparent Society.

In 2020, the British Security Industry Association estimated that there were between 4 and 5.9 million security cameras in the country—roughly one for every thirteen people. And it doesn’t stop at cameras: From gunshot locators, to recording devices, to motion sensors, our world is full of devices that pry into our lives.

But while privacy advocates used to worry about on-street surveillance, the ubiquity of mobile devices eclipsed those very valid concerns. We have a perfect recording device in our pockets, and we willingly update for-profit platforms on our status, sharing photos and location. Every Skinner-box like, retweet, or upvote is a tiny, automated personality test, the results of which are used to change our behaviour through nudges and interruptions. The resulting map of our mind is sold to those who would understand, the better to further their own agendas.

This is the stark reality of privacy in 2021. But perhaps privacy was a transient lie anyway: Certainly, in small villages where gossip and word-of-mouth were our primary channels, there wasn’t a way to hide from others. And unless you were nobility, you shared much of your life and accommodation with others.

David Brin has been thinking hard about this for nearly a quarter of a century. His 1997 book The Transparent Society doesn’t ask whether we can put the surveillance genie back in the bottle. Instead, he argues, we should accept that it’s the norm—and asks what needs to change as a result.

For Brin, the problem isn’t the cameras (and by extension, myriad other surveillance tools that have appeared since he wrote the book.) It’s that they’re one-way devices, and the people watching us are unaccountable. Imagine, he suggests, two societies: One where a ruling group watches us, unchecked; the other, where everyone watches everyone (with certain limitations for decency.) The first society would quickly devolve into tyranny, because asymmetric information is power. The second society would ascend to acceptance, as we all learned we were accountable to everyone else.

Utopian? Perhaps. But rather than being mired in the argument about whether or not we have too many cameras, or whether algorithms are wrong, or how long recordings are stored, it’s a useful prompt that forces us to reconsider.