The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
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Transparent Society

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In 1996 David Brin wrote a piece for Wired, The Transparent Society. Later turned into a book of the same name, Brin’s article asks us to imagine a world 20 years into the future…in other words, 2016. The key thesis of Brin’s argument is that it is critical to watch the watchers. After the recent revelations of the NSA‘s activities, this would seem a wise prescription. And there has been some democratization of information. Though police officers seem to chafe and resist it, it seems likely that in the near future ubiquitous video technology will allow the public to record them, just as they are no doubt watching us. But it isn’t just the authorities, as Brin himself imagined the decline of street crime due to surveillance. A recent article in The New York Times reports on the growing trend of people tracking their stolen iPhones, and retrieving them from thieves. Though the piece highlights the worries of authorities about vigilantism, it is obvious that in many jurisdictions petty theft is a crime which can be committed with impunity because it is too low on the priority list.

But putting the focus on crime is too narrow. Today we live in a world of “helicopter parents,” who shadow their children and ferry them from point to point, as if there is a constant risk that they’ll be put in harm’s way. As a parent myself I understand the impulse, though I also know that it’s irrational. In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker points out that parents who drive their children to school, rather than letting them walk, may be increasing the risk of death because of the danger of road fatalities. Parents who behave in a more laissez faire manner more typical of the period before 1990 are today likely to be harassed by authorities and other parents who perceive a risk of child neglect or endangerment. In the past “free range childhood” was just childhood.

I believe that there may be a technical “fix” to this social malady. It seems unlikely that an innovation like Google Glass will remain as bulky and visible as it is in this pre-alpha stage. In the near future I imagine Google contacts. Not only would these be less visible, and obviously more immune to theft and destruction, but their interface with the surface of the body and contact with tears could allow it to serve as a critical input for direct physiological input. The lens could not only respond to conscious signals, but it could monitor biomarkers via the tears, as well as one’s mental state via tracking eye movements and pupil dilation.

One of the primary fears of any parent today in the United States is sexual abuse. A device with a simple built-in artificial intelligence with robust pattern matching capabilities might be able to “alert” parents and authorities immediately. The fact is that parents don’t want to really observe and monitor every waking moment of their child’s lives. What they fear are those few moments which might be dangerous for the child, and it is those moments where the full power of total transparency might be unleashed.

This is not a cyberpunk science fiction pipe dream. It is the near future. That’s pretty obvious if you talk to anyone working in Silicon Valley. The question is not when, but what we’ll do as a society, and what normative frameworks we want the technology to amplify.

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I do talk periodically on this weblog about the coming ‘transparent society.’ The main reason I bring up the issue is that I think it is probably inevitable, and, I think we’re sliding toward it without even reflecting on it too much. Many people are very surprised at how little time it takes to find information on them in Spokeo and Pipl. Curious about where someone you lost touch with from high school has lived? Go to Intelius.

Rereading David Brin’s original 1996 essay introducing the idea in Wired I’m struck by the fixation on old-fashioned cameras. To me, what people do is almost less interesting than what they’ve done. How much did they buy their house for? Where did they go to university? Did they graduate? Who did they marry? Interestingly, much of this information is offered up freely by the individuals themselves.

And yet what about our genetic code? With the recent 23andMe sale (which continues on, with provisions) I noticed people on Facebook worrying about privacy. Interestingly WikiLeaks has revealed that American diplomats were encouraged to obtain the DNA of foreign notables. Why would they do this? My first thought was that perhaps it would be an easy way to blackmail powerful cuckolds! Though this didn’t seem to cramp Adnan Kashoggi’s style. I assume that powerful individuals don’t have to worry about divulging their disease risks, since they’ll be taken care of. But the reality is that the science is simply not there for a great deal of return when it comes to risk variants. Below is a screenshot of my risks for various diseases from 23andMe as judged from a few single nucleotide variants:


First, these are risks assuming a European genetic background. Which I don’t have. So there’s a problem right there, but 23andMe helpfully notes this boldly if you click through. But setting that aside, I know my risks for Type 2 Diabetes are much greater than average. Why? I have a family history of the disease! That’s why I’m obsessed with visceral fat.

The point is that right now family history is a much better predictor of your risks of a given disease than anything else. Not only does this capture missing heritability, but there is a natural correlation between families and environmental risk factors (or lack thereof). Using the breast cancer risk assessment tool it seems that if you have one first-degree relative who has had the disease you double your own odds of coming down with it over a five year period (though the risks over any given five year period are still low). There has been a lot of warranted attention paid to the BRCA genes, but what about the ability of insurers to digitally analyze the obituaries of your relatives and predict your own probability of death and disease?

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be worried about divulging one’s genetic data. But it’s only a small piece of the puzzle of what we’re losing.

• Category: Science • Tags: Privacy, Technology, Transparent Society 
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In regards to the WikiLeaks story, it seems that:

– The explosive stuff is really a shift from assumed understanding to explicit acknowledgment. For example, that Arab nations are just as terrified of Iran’s nuclear program as Israel.

– The surprising stuff is more funny or strange. More like gossip you wouldn’t have guessed, but isn’t really that significant in the broad canvas of diplomatic history.

Strangely, I sort of think this is of a piece with the recent “Teacher’s Union Gone Wild” videos. Basically, the expectation of privacy is disappearing, on the grandest and most mundane scales. In the latter case, a woman was chatted up at a bar, and recorded for hours on end. Unfortunately for her, she used to the N-word, though not even in a offensive context (follow the link). Who hasn’t run their mouth off at a bar? Make sure you don’t have enemies! Imagine how someone could utilize damaging conversations in office politics. On the grand scale you have problems of coordination across agencies where secrecy and confidentiality are of the essence.

gaysultantConsider the media. I recently was listening to a radio show where Robert D. Kaplan was talking about the enlightened liberal despot of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Oman has Hindu temples, due to the existence of a long-standing Indian minority. But of course Kaplan, being a respectable journalist who would not trade in gossip did not mention that the Sultan partakes of liberality himself, as in Oman it is assumed he is a homosexual (he is divorced and has no children as heirs). In a pre-internet period I wouldn’t do so much background checking when it came to politicians and public figures, but now I regularly do so. The personal lives and histories of powerful individuals are often very relevant in assessing how they came to the positions they hold, and the sincerity of their positions.

Your life in 30 seconds

This is all almost banal because it has been happening imperceptibly. The WikiLeaks events are notable only in that they’re punctuated gushers. But the TSA wants to see you naked, Intelius can verify your age in 10 seconds, and Zillow can tell me how much your home is assessed and how much you purchased it for. Did you donate to a political party recently? Who are you related to? What’s your social network presence and how much public information do you have dangling out there? Life in 2010.

Image Credit: tomsun

• Category: Science • Tags: Technology, Transparent Society 
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No anonymity on future web says Google CEO:

“There was five exabytes [five billion gigabytes] of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003,” he said. “But that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing… People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.

The bulk of that information, Schmidt explained, comes in the form of user-generated data. Every digital interaction throws up information, he said. And that information can be used to minutely analyse and predict human behaviour.

Schmidt told delegates at the conference that the availability of information increased convenience, and enabled society to more effectively combat anti-social and criminal behaviour – but his talk raised some unsettling issues.

He said that addressing issues such as identity theft, for instance, required “true transparency and no anonymity”.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Transparent Society 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"