David Brin: state secrecy and science fiction

Summary:A decade ago, novellist and essayist David Brin said that surveillance of the state by the people was the best counterbalance to Big Brother. ZDNet UK caught up with him to see how his future has panned out

...we have to be responsible for defending our own freedom. Not everybody is going to be the nerd, not everybody is going to be well-heeled enough to hire a lawyer, but they can join a consortium that does.

If the information is flowing both ways, at least there's some intrinsic limit to how heinously they can treat you. If the camera is on the mighty, there's a limit to what they can do to you, even if the power is intrinsically inhomogeneous.

What about the danger of digital vigilantes? Will we have stronger privacy laws?
Throughout human history, power systems were pyramidal — mostly tyranny aimed downward — but the human instinct is nevertheless to appeal upwards to a benign leadership above.

You have problems, but they are the problem of oppression by potentially a billion Little Brothers.

European privacy commissioners appealing to laws to regulate the flow of information is still based on this; [it's] saying we're going to have benign leaders. But the flow is still passing through a trusted network, then back down to us.

Instead of surveillance from above, 'sousveillance' (Steve Mann at the University of Toronto and I helped coin it) is looking from below and the side.

If you have a world filled with light, we will not have Big Brother. You have problems, but they are the problem, maximally, of 'Little Brother'. Majority tyranny, oppression by potentially a billion Little Brothers. It's slightly less bad than Big Brother, because at least you're probably not being tortured, but still it's a potential form of tyranny.

But we're seeing more and more signs, especially in the new generation in their attitudes on services like Facebook, that the attitude is 'We had better defend the rights of people to be eccentric, because we have our own eccentricities and those might be the next thing targeted'.

Over the last 50 years, certainly in the US but also in Europe, the more the public finds out about a non-harm-doing minority group of eccentrics, the more accepting they are of them. This has happened with gays and lesbians, it's happened with minority groups... And yet this has not manifested in increased tolerance of those who are angry and harm-doing, like the Klu Klux Klan.

It seems to be the more we know about somebody the more tolerant we are of their eccentricity, unless they are hateful. If I'm right about that, then the Little Brother scenario also appears unlikely.

How do you have privacy and sousveillence together?
People say I'm against privacy, and that's a complete lie. What I say is we can't have privacy unless we have freedom. If we have freedom and knowledge, then perhaps we can enforce some privacy. It won't be the same amount we had in the 20th Century, but it will be redefined, and we'll have some.

Are you still exploring these ideas in your science fiction?
There's a lot about transparency and secrecy in my novel Earth, including the Helvetian war. It's the whole world against Switzerland, atom bombs end up getting used, but we finally get the bank records.

The new novel Existence is out in June 2012. It covers some of the same territory, though it's a little more broad themed. It's about the 100 or 200 pitfalls that might end human existence on our way to becoming a mature star-travelling civilization. We seem to be alone in the cosmos at present, and all the others may have already fallen into these pitfalls. We may fall into the same traps that killed them, or we may be the lucky ones. We may be the smart ones!

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Topics: Security


Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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