Sunday, July 01, 2012

Transparency, Secrecy, and Copyright for the Modern Age

=== A Look at The Transparent Society  - 15 years later ===

Why freedom of the press concerns us all. Nick Cohen of Standing Point Magazine (UK) does a detailed retrospective and appraisal of my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? He examines how far we have gone in the directions that I discussed, suggested.... and warned about.  Especially regarding the profession of journalism.

"Brin's Transparent Society stood out from the mass of now forgotten predictions about the internet because he understood that technology had made old levels of privacy impossible: "The djinn cannot be crammed back into the bottle. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to legislate away the new tools and techniques." The best encryption systems in the world are of no use if the state or another public, private or criminal organization can place a miniature camera behind you while you type, or insert a program into your system to monitor your key strokes. Instead of trying to protect the unprotectable, Brin called for political change to match changes in technology. He envisaged possible responses by imagining how two cities might look in 2018.

In his first city, cameras were on every vantage point. Only the authorities could access them. Crime fell, but the city's inhabitants knew that the police could monitor their behavior and record their arguments against the status quo.

Brin's second city looked much like the first. It, too, had cameras on every vantage point. All citizens could access them via devices on their wristwatches, however. (He could not predict the sophistication of the modern mobile phone.) A woman walking home could check that no one was lurking behind a corner. A man late for a date could check if his girlfriend was still waiting for him. When the police arrest a suspect they do so with meticulous attention to his rights because they know that unknown eyes might be monitoring them."

===Swiss Cheese Mountains==

Recall the “Helvetian War” from my novel Earth?  In which the whole world pummels Switzerland and it takes years and nukes, before they finally release the bank records?  Well nobody ever said it would be easy!  John McPhee reports: “Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide...”

The whole country, in fact, is mined with self-destructs.  Did they reinforce the efforts, after reading EARTH?

==Technology for better and for worse==

You will want Google Glasses: A glimpse into the advantages of wearable “overlay computing” that is given its early, primitive-initial form in Google’s Project Glass... which was unveiled (intentionally?) during the very same month that saw publication of my novel EXISTENCE, filled with speculations, warnings and things-you-never-thought-of about wearable Augmented Reality (AR).

Farhad Manjoo writes about Google Glass in Technology Review: “This was a revelation. Here was a guy wearing a computer, but because he could use it without becoming lost in it—as we all do when we consult our many devices—he appeared less in thrall to the digital world than you and I are every day." Such mobile systems may actually help the user pay more attention to the real world as opposed to retreating from it, providing you with the integrated information you need, when and where you need it.

(Well, this shows a remarkable lack of imagination beyond the five year near-future. Still, it is nice to see a positive tilt unfold.)

=== Other AI developments ===

The Pentagon’s intergalactic black-magic plot is getting ready to raise the dead. Dead satellites, that is. Darpa, the military’s research agency, intends to harvest parts from unused communications satellites still orbiting the Earth, and convert them (particularly antennas) into a communications array to reach troops on the ground.  Yes you read that right. Actually cannibalizing physical parts in GEO. Very different from my idea of utilizing the 10% remaining capacity in retired DoD commsats for a backup civilian net.  This new idea offers possibilities for good, including automation and cleanup techniques... and is also meant to make clear US ability to act at will in the valuable realm of GEO.

Are we drifting too far from Asimov's Three Laws?  More and more machines are being equipped with capabilities to use force - including lethal - against human beings. Despite case-by-case justifications, will this turn out to be a creep we later regret?  Are there methods to embed ultimate human judgment and control into the "DNA" of such machines?

==Copyright for the Modern Era== – is a new approach to paying authors to make their ebooks freely available: The author sets a price (“I’d like to make another $10,000 from this novel I wrote a while back, and if I could make that much I’d be happy to release it into the world under a Creative Commons license so the ebook would be free to anyone who wants it.”) and has a fundraising campaign to raise the money to pay the author for some of the rights to the book.

I’ve long held that copyright is a practical measure to guarantee creative people enough income for them to be creative publicly.  Along with patents, this bribes them out of the recourse to secrecy that dominated the previous 6000 years.  There is no mystical right to “own” ideas.  But the practical effects of Intellectual Property (IP) have been staggeringly positive.  Today, instead of being squirreled away and lost (e.g. Hero’s steam engines, the Antekithera Device, the Baghdad Battery...) our ideas now mingle and breed in the open, leveraging and accelerating progress.  Find another way to solve the age-old disaster of secrecy, and I will happily watch copyright go into retirement.

== The big security Trojan Horse ===

Buy up old computers.  Seriously.  A fellow I know sent this: “When a recent edition of Windows came out, I looked very closely into the security literature on it. I was appalled to see that the main new security features were security against users trying to establish control over their own computer either at home or at work. Many large institutions discriminated against Mac in favor of Windows, because Windows made it easy to install "hidden" security software (easy enough to find, impossible to suppress) to monitor and control everything you do. I have had a few struggles with Radia at home. But a corollary is that the computer is wide open to things from the outside.

"The new Mac operating system Lion is said to make the institutions much happier, and is fully compatible with external control. Great news for really competent hackers. And regular security updates come to Mac too, more and more."


A thought provoking rumination about how many of the world’s extant 6500 spoken languages are dying, while English and Chines and Spanish rise.... And English speakers use less complex or precise speaking patterns.  Worth some contemplation!

Former WIRED editot-in-chief Kevin Kelly has an interesting kickstarted project that I recommend you look at: The Silver Cord. Kelly writes, “The Silver Cord is my first try at fiction. My co-authors and I are giving away the first book, hoping that those who enjoy it will want to fund the concluding half. First part of the story is free; the ending will cost. We'll see how well that works.” It’s an interesting exercise in speculative theology as Kevin puts it.  A phrase you’ll also find - with some differences - in another book that came out the same day... Existence.  (Kevin's approach is about how technological advances may instigate a clash between humans, robots and angels!)

I'm told, I was mentioned in the original British version of the show: The Office, season 2, episode 6?  Can anyone verify?

Oops!  A “nasty octopus” clings to a dolphin for dear life.


jophan said...

McPhee's book was from 1984, so I'm afraid you can't claim any credit.

Rob said...

I was hard-pressed to think of highway tunnels at the border in Switzerland, but a quick check of the map shows that all the Autobahn routes have a tunnel feature within 10 km.

Even so, come off it a bit, please, David. The Swiss infrastructure is not "mined with self-destructs." The closest it gets is that the materiel to do so is close by with the infrastructure prepped to receive it.

Considering the size of the country, that would be true if all the explosives were in a hole in Ticino waiting for deployment to Schaffhausen!

At any rate, don't you believe that the I-70 tunnels in Colorado have similar preparations close by? NORAD is famous for being inside a mountain...

sociotard said...

Stay classy, Bobby Jindal.

Louisiana state library funding has been eliminated

sociotard said...

The Swiss article was discussed on another forum. Quoting an erudite historian there:

Most Swiss live in medium-sized cities located on plains stretching into Germany, most of the rest on plains stretching into France. Conquering Switzerland would be no big deal, militia-based army or not. (Although the author of the linked article needs to be reminded that "conscription" has existed in other countries besides Switzerland and Israel. No. Really.)

The issue is that the only reason why anyone would invade Switzerland is either to outflank the defences that face each other on the Franco-German border or to secure the alpine passes between Germany and Italy. Now, you want a demolition chamber in a modern reinforced concrete bridge as a basic safety precaution. Consider the bridge that loses a main spar in a flood and is suddenly dangling above the river, slowly twisting towards total constructive loss. Obviously you want to get in there and blow the thing to pieces before it can go into the water and create a dam that will make the flood that much worse.

Of course, national ministries of defence can get behind the logic, and so architects who might think about saving the cost of a demolition chamber will hear about it, with the result that many bridges in many countries have demolition chambers, whether or not they're in Switzerland. Now, long before the singing of the Triple Alliance in the 1880s, Swiss authorities have naturally been worried about violations of national sovereignty resulting from Italian, German or French armies using the alpine passes to shift from one theater of operations to the other. From this concern there emerged as early as the 1880s the idea of a Swiss National Redoubt, specifically intended to guard the passes and thus frustrate the objectives of any invasion carried out with this strategic intent.

In the first phase, the Swiss, like every other country, commissioned a few Brialmont-style forts. Theirs were placed in the heart of the high country, but no doubt had the usual patronage politics contexts. Because fortifications such as Fort St. Gotthard are naturally located along the main trans-Alpine highways, millions of people drive by them every year, and they obviously make a huge impression. But it is certainly not the case that the "entire country" is built like this.

But I'm sure that all the other articles at Boingboing are accurate.

The Great and Powerful Oz said...

I know quite a few writers, and I've even met you on a couple of occasions. I am very unhappy with the current Copyright laws, their main purpose seems to be to help large corporations hide content that they would find embarassing in today's political climate. I'm personally in favor of reducing the length of a copyright to 20 years. As far as I have been able to tell, most authors make trivial amounts, if anything, on works that are over 20 years old. The ones that do are typically big names who are making quite a bit on their current works.

Of course, you're quite welcome to disagree with me, but I expect the disagreement will be on the length of copyright protection, not copyrights themselves.

Robert said...

The Swiss have had heavy border defences going back at least to Napoleon's defeat. They went into overdrive when Hitler was in power.

So it all predates not just you, but McPhee. I remember reading about it my father's copy of Van Loon's Geography (1932).

Bob Pfeiffer

ZarPaulus said...

Hmm, the company I work for currently uses Macs exclusively. We had some trouble initially connecting to the company servers.

Guess I should get around to installing Linux on my Windows laptop sometime soon.

MicroSourcing said...

Brin had a very interesting view of privacy issues and the future. It's great that his vision entertained the idea that everyone would be under more scrutiny, but the distribution of power over the scrutiny makes a big difference.

Kallikanzarid said...

Use Linux, it's peer reviewed!

David Brin said...

Oz please do not tell me you know how we disagree. You did not bother to paraphrase my point, to show that you understand it. That is what folks do, before extrapolating another person's views.

I explained what IP SHOULD achieve, ending 6000 years of lobotomizing secrecy. Beyond that, I oppose the "undead mouse law" and other grabs by major (uncreative) corporations.

Micorsourcing... look up Sousveillance.

Ian Gould said...

Forgive me for returning to the issue of SETI but a variation on the Benford hypothesis occurred to me.

Are there astrophysical objects - such as pulsars, black holes and nebulae which are likely to be of interest to a wide range of hypothetical alien races, meaning that they're likely to be extensively monitored?

If so, should we consider aiming messages at such objects in the hope that they'll be picked up by species monitoring those objects anyway? Or analysing the data from such objects for possible messages?

On a different note, National Geographic is planning to respond to the "Wow" signal. I've raised the question before of how long it might take an alien species to decide to respond upon receipt of an alien signal.

It looks like the answer for humanity is 35 years.

Finally, SETI expert Jill Tarter is interviewed in New Scientist this week and mentions that there is no agreed protocol for how how to respond to a first contact - or even for how to decide who should make that decision.

Maybe that's what the Lurkers are waiting for.

Think about the potential of a METI to destabilize international politics and to cause panic. Maybe the Lurkers know from past experience that such disruption can be minimized once there's a single body authorized to receive and transmit messages for a species.

Ian Gould said...

Oh and forgive my pedantry, but in one of the "Pandora's Cornucopia" sections of Existence we're told that the period from Waterloo to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was the longest period of peace Europe had ever known.

That statement appears to ignore the Crimean War and a bunch of other smaller wars - the Greek War of Independence; the Carlist Wars in Spain and the Revolutions of 1848 which, at a minimum, took on the character of a full-scale conventional war in Hungary and northern Italy.

Paul451 said...

"If so, should we consider aiming messages at such objects in the hope that they'll be picked up by species monitoring those objects anyway? "

Wrong way around. If we wanted to attract the attention of aliens monitoring astronomical phenomena, we would want to aim our transmissions directly away from the phenomena. If you want them to be looking at us, when they are looking at the phenomenon, they must be further away.

OTOH, if we want to listen for anyone else using that strategy, then we just keep doing what we're doing, watch the phenomena. Any civilisation in line, narrowcasting back towards us, will be as detectable as any.

Re: Replying to WOW.
This seems silly. WOW was such a short signal, even if it was genuinely ETI, it would have to have been an accidental sweep. Such as a radar sounding of an outer planet which just happened to line up in our direction, or a random gravitational lensing of less powerful signals. In other words, they didn't realise they were broadcasting and wouldn't be monitoring our particular direction for a reply.

If it was targeting us (then it was a rubbish signal), it's been 35 years, they would have already written us off. If they hadn't written us off, they would surely have pinged us a few more times over the decades.

Acacia H. said...

Score one for Transparency. It appears that Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney continued to have a significant presence in Bain Capital after his proclaimed departure in 1999 and during that time his name shows up prominently with the medical waste disposal company Stericycle which disposes of (among other things) fetuses from abortions. It's truly a pity this didn't come out before he basically wrapped up the Republican nomination (though it might be interesting to see if his nomination falls apart with these new revelations - it would be quite the shakeup, especially seeing that Ron Paul is the one candidate in a position to truly capitalize on any political seismic events that occur due to the anti-abortion wing of the Republican Party).

But yeah. Score one for transparency. This is something we need far more of... and it also makes me curious as to what the next generation of politicians will be like. Seeing that it will become nearly impossible to hide dealings such as this, might the new generation of politicians (from people who were teenagers during the massive growth of the Internet) become so cautious about their dealings that they end up without dirt on them? And given the choice of a corporate favorite who has lots of dirty laundry and the smaller candidate who has kept his or her nose clean... which will prevail in the new political scene? I don't think Dr. Brin examined this possibility in Existence, did he? (Hmm, I could always touch upon this with my own science fiction stories...)

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Thomas said...

"Are there methods to embed ultimate human judgment and control into the "DNA" of such machines?"

Is that supposed to make me feel safe? Humans and our judgements have caused uncountable wars and suffering of innocents over the years. Unless we can come up with something radically more reliable, I say we stick to Asimov's laws.

Acacia H. said...

You could always encode into the war machines with artificial intelligence control systems a target counter. Once the machine has eliminated X number of targets, it cannot destroy any others. This can be reset to 0 with a mechanical key that requires a human operator to use (perhaps inside the war machine so its sensors cannot determine the location of the switch and thus reset it itself with some form of manipulator or with the help of another machine).

After all, why go fancy when a simple solution works best. What's more, the military can just reset the machine after each mission... meaning then that the switch is meant to prevent the machine from going rogue (or going on a destruction spree after some hacker subverts the system) rather than limiting its military application.

What's more, you also program into the AI specific coding so it can only fire on valid targets. Thus the AI can't continue firing at non-targets near targets and thus start killing people despite being at its limit.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

And more science news...

It seems scientists are planning on announcing Wednesday they've discovered enough proof to show the Higgs Boson actually does exist, though they've not actually verified the Higgs itself. Or to put it in layman's terms, scientists are saying the Higgs exists but leaving themselves with enough room to weasel out in case they're wrong.

In addition, a private space company announced plans to provide space liner visits to the Moon using refurbished Soviet space stations that are propelled using electric Hall-effect thrusters, with the stations carrying up to 30 passengers. The company states it will have this ready within 2-3 years.

Rob H.

Hank Roberts said...

> A woman walking home could check
> that no one was lurking ...

And instead, today, invisible advertisers lurk around every corner and leap out to grab your purse ....

Acacia H. said...

You can always say no to the advertiser. And to be honest, I think the woman would much rather want to feel safe while dealing with the inanities of virtual advertisers than worry constantly she's being stalked. (The problem being if some hacker is able to create an AI that can mask his or her presence and thus become "electronically" invisible while attacking people. Which I suppose would be a fascinating variation on the traditional "vampire" stories (as vampires cast no reflection and in some stories fail to appear in photographs and video). An electronic vampire who uses their virtual invisibility to get away with murder (maybe even "emulating" the vampire theme) who is ultimately unveiled to be very human and just using a new technology in their crimes.

Rob H.

infanttyrone said...

An electronic vampire who uses their virtual invisibility to get away with murder (maybe even "emulating" the vampire theme) who is ultimately unveiled to be very human and just using a new technology in their crimes.

So, it would be immune to crosses, huh ?
I sort of like the universe having only one such vampire...the Jewish Shagail in Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, who rebuffs a young woman trying to fend him off with a cross with the line, "Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire. "

Acacia H. said...

Here's a question for Dr. Brin: Do you foresee any possible method that humans could colonize other solar systems using technologies that would be viable (such as fusion propulsion systems, nuclear drives, or the like) for sublight flights? And if so, what form do you perceive these missions taking on?

For example, would it be possible for a decent-sized asteroid to be transformed into a world-ship with an internal habitat (and gravitation provided by centrifugal force) and a slow acceleration out of the solar system, in essence being a multi-generational void ship that slowly makes its way to another solar system - not even necessarily one with habitable planets, but with enough asteroid debris and the like for the creation of added habitat-ships? In essence, a biological (with telepresence or AI robotics) slowship that expands humanity's footprint through millenia much like the von Neumann machines of theory.

And yes, I'm slowly working through Existence, but this work needs to be savored and shouldn't be rushed. ;) So please don't just handwave with a "it's explained in Existence. ;)

Rob H.

Nyctotherion said...

Robert: You mention the 'anti-abortion wing of the Republican Party'

For the last several years, that's been the ONLY wing of the Republican party. I can't think of a single GOPer on the National level who hasn't tried to restrict what a woman can do with her own body.

The two Pauls are no better, witness Ron's idiot son putting a Personhood amendment into the flood bill.

My idea for increasing acceptance of abortion is selling the procedure to the RCC as simply the physical equivalent to exorcism. They seem to approve of that.

ell said...

It sounds as if Rob H. has a different solution to Trek Classic's Doomsday Machine. After the machine destroys three planets, someone has to dismantle the machine and insert the reset key.... Hmmmm.....

Alex Tolley said...

@ Robert you also program into the AI specific coding so it can only fire on valid targets.

There's the rub. This is incredibly hard to do. Even humans seem incapable of making the correct decisions (c.f. drones killing civilians).

I do not see robots targeting people as sensible technology at all. ED 209's should be the exemplar of the problems of these these devices.

What I do see is robots targeting infrastructure and military weapons where moral decision making is not required.

sociotard said...

After the machine destroys three planets, someone has to dismantle the machine and insert the reset key.

Made me think of this line:

Fry: I heard that one time you single-handedly defeated a horde of rampaging somethings in the something-something-system.
Zapp Brannigan: The Killbots? A trifle! It was simply a matter of outsmarting them.
Fry: Wow! I never would have thought of that!
Zapp Brannigan: You see, Killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shutdown. Kif, show them the medal I won.

infanttyrone said...

My idea for increasing acceptance of abortion is selling the procedure to the RCC as simply the physical equivalent to exorcism. They seem to approve of that.

Your modest proposal sent me into a flight of fancy in which Obama issues an executive order making anyone involved with abortions some sort of civilian federal deputy acting under the authority recently granted by NDAA.

Although this might be legal under current law, the Republicans would likely seize the issue as another opportunity to accuse him of executive over-reach, and any subsequent GOP president would have to revoke the order.

So, after coming back to my senses, your exorcism angle seems to be the much more practical approach. When you start your letter-writing campaign, don't forget to emphasize that the little demons-in-the-making are overwhelmingly 'urban' and would probably grow up to vote Democratic.

David Brin said...

Rob, I believe our descendants will go to the stars. Perhaps in world-ships as you say, or on comets (slowly) or using amazing new tech... or else the simplest way... by redefining ourselves to be suitable denizens of space.

Ian said...

In the long run if hmanity survives, we will almost definitely go to other solar systems.

1. There's no clear boundary between the Oort cloud and the cometary halos surrounding nearby stars. If we learn to survive on cold Pluto-sized bodies then eventually we'll end up island-hopping into other solar systems.

2. Every hundred thousand years or so another star comes within one light year of the Sun. Every million years or so one comes within 0.1 lightyears. If we wait long enough nd retain technology, the stars will coem ot us.

Ian said...

infantryone: all we need to do is to convince the roman Catholic Church to revert to the traditional Christian teaching (still maintained by Orthodox Jews) that life begins not at conception but at roughly the end of the first trimester of pregnancy.

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jumper said...

The input interfaces of wearable computers are a sticking point to me. So far there are keyboards, mice, trackpads, touchscreens and trackballs, eye-motion detection, pens, and speech. Maybe a few more. There are the wearable clothes interfaces proposed, where you twitch or make imperceptible motions, I think.

I want a smart tooth which can determine the position of my tongue, which has many nerves and which I can control pretty well, enough to use my teeth as a keyboard. Since I can't type while talking, like some pros can, I wouldn't be giving up much.

Acacia H. said...

Just finished "Existence." My hat is off to you, Dr. Brin. In an odd way I'm reminded of my own contemporary fantasy "The Trip" which grew from a novella that covered a third of the book originally, much as one of your own short stories seems to have inspired this novel.

I'll have to take some notes down when I reread it so to get my questions in order. I did have some disagreements with concepts you mentioned in several places. ^^;;

Rob H.

Thomas said...

Robert, what is to prevent a rogue war machine from saving one bullet, ask their operator to reset their kill count and explain that if they refuse they will be considered as traitors for hindering the war effort and therefore shot? "You are either with us or against us"

LarryHart said...


So, it would be immune to crosses, huh ?
I sort of like the universe having only one such vampire...the Jewish Shagail in Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, who rebuffs a young woman trying to fend him off with a cross with the line, "Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire. "

I see a sort of thematic correlation between the (Jewish) vampire who is immune to crosses and Dr Brin's alien male character in "Glory Season" whose sexual urges are unaffected by the summer/winter cycle.

LarryHart said...


And yes, I'm slowly working through Existence, but this work needs to be savored and shouldn't be rushed.

I totally agree, which is why "Existence", like "Earth", "Glory Season" and "The Postman" take months for me to finish.

My wife, on the other hand, can polish an 800-pager off on a five hour airplane flight. And she sees nothing wrong with that.

"And so, between the two of us, we lick the platter clean," I guess.

Acacia H. said...

Normally I finish big novels quickly. And then immediately jump in for a reread. But I had things distracting me from long-term reading and thus never got into a lengthy crawl until last night (as I have today off and could stay up 'til 2 a.m.). I'll start rereading it now but I do intend on doing notes because I know I had some questions. (Like that blind spot thing. It made no sense.)

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Since the Transparent Society features in this post, it seems appropriate to post a link to the Declaration of Internet Freedom.

Sign or not, as you will.

'ihavin 2' (but that's not how the voting system operates)

Eric said...

Gee, it would really be interesting to see if a book by a futurist sort of author could be "unglued".

Anonymous said...

So, David. Will you be putting any of your novels on If not, why not (a genuine question, I can see authors being reluctant simply because it's hard to value something like a novel)? Perhaps one older novel as a gesture of support/

Andromeda said...

As the librarian at, I second the above comments. (Where by "second", I mean "have been babbling enthusiastically on Twitter and IM about this blog post all morning"...thanks for writing about us! We'd love to unglue your work(s).)