The Transparent Society: A radical transformation that we should probably undergo

Edit (May, 2020): The purpose of this document is to examine the end, and ask whether it would be good or stable, the purpose is not to examine the means, to lay a path, or to tally the risks of trying. I don’t know how clear that was. I am sorry to disappoint anyone who was looking for that. It’s a sensible thing to be concerned about. I hope I’ll study it later.

In 1998, David Brin published a vision of a potentially inevitable societal shift towards all-encompassing democratised surveillance. It could not be called a panopticon, because those who patrol the observation house would be as visible as anyone else.

We would be able to watch our watchers.

Privacy would disappear, but many kinds of evil would go along with it.

The book was okay. It’s definitely worth reading the first few chapters and some of Brin’s reflections on the development of the internet are really interseting, but I found the rest very meandering and a little bit unsatisfying. I’m going to summarise my own understanding of radical societal transparency and why I’m convinced that it would be extremely good, actually so that I don’t have to keep recommending the entire book, which didn’t capture my stance very well.

I’m also going to go over some of the potential problems a transparent society would have, and explain why I’m not yet deterred by them. Some of them could turn out to be lethal to the idea, but that seems unlikely to me so far. I’m eager to explore those doubts until we’re sure.


It should not surprise anyone that a radically open society would have many advantages. Information is useful. If we know more about each other, we can arrange more trades, and we can trust each other more easily.

In order of importance:

  • It would likely prevent most “easy nuke” technological x-risks discussed in Bostrom’s black ball paper (Vulnerable Universe)

    • That is to say, if a very harmful technology rapidly emerges, for instance, a method for manufacturing a species-ending virus requiring only very common lab equipment, the transparent society would be able to police against it without any special laws. Every government could fail utterly to recognise the threat, and we might still be able to survive it; In this example, biotech workers would simply be able to watch each others’ behaviour, make a note of it if anyone reads about this apocalyptic method, keeps copies of the method around, seems to be especially moody, or whether they have, you know, physically gone to the lab at 3am and started to actuate the method. The probability of the species one day being wiped out by a few unbalanced individuals wielding humanity’s inevitably growing powers decreases dramatically.

    • The easy nukes concern is most often dismissed with an argument that as technology gets stronger, we will also find new technologies to police its misuse. My answer to that is that, yes, that’s what the transparent society is. What were you expecting. Some kind of anti-biotech that would cancel the dangerous biotech out? (I do not envy whoever has to think about securing the human body against its many attack vectors) This is the technology that will police against the misuse of other technologies, now help us to deploy it.

    • Bostrom discusses surveillance, but does not discuss this position that a surveillance state might be less inclined to tyranny and more liveable if we stopped torturing ourselves with this impossible project of privacy and just let data be free, as data seems to want.

  • preventing crime

    • Remember, crime includes rape and trafficking and murder. People do really really unambiguously bad things sometimes and the world would be dramatically improved if they couldn’t get away with them any more. If a person does not find that possibility exciting, they might have an affect disorder.

    • No doubt, a lot of laws would become too powerful under transparency and would need to be thrown out, but as long as we don’t make it a boiled frog thing, there’s plenty of energy around right now to get those laws thrown out if legislators can be made to realise we’ve hit an inflection point and we need to react to it.. Still. Worthy of more discussion.

  • Watching the watchers

    • Politicians, police, and anyone else in a sensitive public position would be under a lot of pressure to be as open as possible about their dealings. This opens the way to having genuinely trustworthy politicians and police, which is a big deal.

  • Positive changes to the legal system as a result of detection becoming easier?

    • Parole could be a lot more effective. It would be possible, for the first time, to enforce a sentence/​treatment “do not speak with or listen to bad influences through any channel”

  • Promoting social pressures to donate a lot more

    • Humans have always gone to great expense to signal strength and moral purity. We should hope that this energy could be harnessed for useful ends, as in Raikoth’s symbolic beads

    • If both individuals and organisations had to be more open about their income and expenses it’s a lot easier to imagine these pressures coming to bear. If the information about peoples’ personal donations were exposed unconditionally, our taboo against discussing them might not be able to hold together. We would not be able to hide our friends’ shame about not buying enough bednets.

    • That said, I’m confused as to why there is so little social pressure to donate to things, as it is. I wonder how much of it is value-dysphoria, knowing that the values we espouse don’t quite align with our hearts, everyone knowing it, softening when our friends confide in us that they aren’t living up to those values, “It’s okay, I understand that it’s just not what you sincerely wanted to do.” I hope that radical openness will allow us to, first, admit that what is agreed to be good is not always what we as individuals desire to see (to admit that we are not, at heart, altruists, as is plain from the records of our choices), second, that it would allow us to get closer to figuring out what our real values are, so that we can develop truly humane systems of accountability to pursue those instead.

  • Free, complete, and accurate statistics about every facet of human life. Please think of all the science we could do.

  • Forcing people to accept and contend with the weirdness of other people, and their own weirdness.

    • We would no longer be able to hide from it. This is one thing that makes me hopeful that transparency wouldn’t result in the emergence of some new totalitarian normative orthodoxy. There would be heretics everywhere and we’d all be able to hear them (when we choose to) and any crusade short of complete totalitarianism would never be able to completely silence them.

  • Enabling trade.

    • Automated systems for maintaining information about who owns what, how much they seem to use it, and then using that to arrange mutually beneficial trades (or if you’re of the position transparency might obviate the need for money, think of it as; it would be easier for us to notice opportunities to make peoples’ lives better by sharing things with them).

  • Worrying less about surveillance capitalism/​states.

    • With less of an imbalance in hoarded data, The People would have just as much surveillance capacity as Google. Though. If the megacorps can analyse the data better than The People can, maybe they still have to worry. More has been written about this, which others could probably recall more easily than I could. Homo Deus anticipated large, transformative effects of Big Data Analysis, but I don’t remember being moved by any specific claims, maybe Harari cites someone else, in those sections? I don’t have a copy on hand to check.

Potential Disadvantages

  • Even in the most open tribes, humans seem to have an instinct for shyness. I’m not sure we know what happens to humans when they’re deprived of the opportunity to do things in private. Maybe it’s mostly about sex. I dunno. What are the evolutionary teloses underlying humans’ coyness about sex?

    • There’s infidelity, of course. But it seems to be mostly agreed upon that it’s not good that we have the ability to commit infidelity.

    • I could imagine there being a thing about obscuring paternity leading to greater tribal cohesion… but I don’t think anything like that exists in any developed country to be protected. Also doesn’t seem terribly hard to accommodate under standard transparency technologies.

    • I guess I’m not very worried about this. In most tribes, people do most things in the company of others. It is strange to us to share so much, but there’s nothing unnatural about it, no reason to think humans would thrive less under it.

  • The emergence of new, hyper-strong universal orthodoxies.

    • Transparency makes it possible to enforce against even the tiniest transgression against a dominant power, which may make the dominant power incontestable.

    • (counterargument: see ‘forcing people to accept and contend with the weirdness of other people’)

  • A weakness that a transparent state’s non-transparent enemies could easily exploit to destroy them (assuming the future will contain any major wars, which, since the creation of the atomic bomb, it’s not clear that we can have major wars any more, still, worth considering).

    • Information imbalance in war

      • Imagine that you’re playing a game of chess, and the enemy can see all of your pieces, but you can’t see any of theirs. You’d be fucked. But that isn’t a legitimate analogy, it would be more like a game of chess where the enemy can see all of your pieces and you can only see a subset of theirs.
        The question for me is whether the internal cohesion of a transparent society will make it strong enough that it could win such a war uphill, to extend the analogy; you can’t see all of their pieces all of the time, but if your high trust society with its perfect economy of complete information is able to build more pieces than them, maybe you win anyway. You’re at a disadvantage, but you also have this other advantage ready to go. Which one weighs more, the advantage or the disadvantage? I don’t know. We’ll need to experiment. I’m very eager to do that.

        • So, we could come up with some kind of asymmetric information wargame. Unfortunately, despite being a game designer, I don’t personally have much strategic acumen for the logistics of war, and I’ve never played a realistic wargame. Lots of people do though! I imagine they’d tend to be interested in a question like this!

    • We must wonder why anyone would attack a transparent society when it could demonstrate thoroughly that it is institutionally incapable of being the first one to break the treaty. A transparent state could be far more able to prove nonaggression. When they say they aren’t plotting anything, an intelligence agency can see directly that they aren’t plotting anything.

    • I guess, on reflection, the problems a transparent society has with protecting registered intellectual property are no different that the problems of a closed society. It wouldn’t be IP if it wasn’t circulating in the open. The whole idea of IP is much more closely aligned with radical openness than closedness; a surreal releasing-yet-protecting of private information that enables conversations, inspiration and trade that would otherwise be impossible.


So here’s what we should try to do in light of all of that:

  • Investigate the problem areas described above and try to resolve the difficult remaining questions in the ways suggested. In summary,

    • Figure out whether there are potentials for lastingly destructive social consensus monoculture.

    • Figure out whether a radically open society with a wealth advantage of about one order of magnitude can survive aggression (war or sabotage) from a closed one.

    • Figure out what a good legal system would look like in a transparent society. It is likely to be harder, considering that every law would be consistently enforced.

If the answer to those questions is “It’ll be fine, go ahead”,

  • Develop the relevant technologies. Transparent computing (trusted computing, smart contracts, that kind of thing), cheap recording devices, better wireless networks.

  • Promote the culture of radical openness. Pursue the dream of a society where honesty is rewarded, that votes in politicians on the basis of who they really are rather than how good they are at acting. Promote socially positive radically open celebrities. Ensure that the support exists.

If the answer turns out to be “no, this would be bad actually”...

You must still try to deploy the constrained forms of global surveillance and policing proposed in Bostrom’s black ball paper. It is well documented that we failed to handle nukes, and only an idiot would bet that nukes are the blackest ball that’s gonna come out of the urn.

Disarmament still hasn’t happened.

As long as the bomb can be hidden, there will remain an indomitable incentive to have the bomb.

Is there a good reason to think we’re going to be able to defuse it with anything short of a total abolition of secrecy?