Information Technology

Information technology (IT) has been transforming modern society since before the introduction of the personal computer in the early 1970s. As such, IT would have fit naturally under the category of “Technology” in this list. At this point in its evolution, however, we should be able to begin to see beyond the technological promise to some of the societal implications of the advances made possible by IT. Speculation about those implications has been rampant since the 1970s as well, but speculation is beginning to be backed up by serious data collection and analysis. It is not just the technology, but effects of the widespread use of that technology that we are beginning to see. For this reason, information was given its own category in the list.

The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? — 1998

David Brin

Because of the intrusive capabilities of the latest IT products, privacy has become a widely-debated issue today. The feasibility of cheap, ubiquitous camera surveillance connected to the Internet so that just about anyone and anything can be viewed anywhere at any time certainly raises the specter of the total loss of privacy. Rather than worry about how to ensure privacy in such a world, Brin questions the need for privacy itself. Instead, he argues the virtues of ‘reciprocal transparency’ where, instead of no one being able to see what anyone else is doing, everybody can see what everybody else is doing. People rightly fear that letting others (say the FBI or a big corporation) see what you are doing can lead to mischief, but Brin argues that if you are allowed in return to know what others are seeing and to comment on it – to make them accountable, too – the opportunities for mischief abate. He argues that reciprocal transparency is much more in keeping with our democratic traditions than is privacy (which is nowhere to be found in our Constitution); that it is privacy, not accountability, that enables despots and crime to flourish.

Brin recognizes that reciprocal accountability is not better than privacy in all cases, but he argues compellingly that the notion of reciprocal accountability should be given much greater consideration as we struggle with an IT-induced change in privacy. His concept is clearly important as we struggle today with identity theft (which he mentions explicitly) and international terrorism, but it also suggests that how we as a society choose to deal with technologies that enable greater transparency has important longer-term implications as well.

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