Brin’s “Existence,” the Fermi Paradox, and the Future of Privacy

I just finished David Brin’s “Existence,” his biggest new novel in years.  Brin, as some readers know, has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction writing.  He also wrote the 1999 non-fiction book “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?”.  More about that in a bit.

Existence is full of big ideas.  A main focus is on the Fermi Paradox, which observes that we would expect to find other forms of life out there among the hundreds of billions of suns, but we haven’t seen evidence of that life yet.  If you haven’t ever thought through the Fermi Paradox, I think it is a Genuine Big Question, and well worth contemplating.  Fortunately for those who like their science mixed with fiction, Brin weaves fifty or so possible answers to the Fermi Paradox into his 550-page novel.  Does climate change kill off other races?  Nuclear annihilation?  Do aliens upload themselves into computers once they get sophisticated (the “singularity”), so we never detect them across the void?  And a lot, lot more.

It took me a little while to get into the book, but I read the last few hundred pages in a rush.  I’ve had the pleasure to know Brin for a bunch of years, and find him personally and intellectually engaging.  I was pleased to read this, because I think it will intrigue curious minds for a long time as our telescopic views of other planets deepen our puzzlement about the Fermi Paradox.

As for privacy, my own view is that the privacy academics didn’t take his 1999 book seriously enough as an intellectual event.  One way to describe Brin’s insight is to say that surveillance in public becomes cheaper and more pervasive over time.  For Brin, having “control” over your face, eye blinks, location, etc., etc. becomes futile and often counter-productive once cameras and other sensors are pervasive and searchable.  Brin picked up on these themes in his earlier novel, “Earth,” when elderly people used video cameras to film would-be muggers, deterring the attacks.  In the new novel, the pervasive use of the 2060 version of Google Glasses means that each person is empowered to see data overlays for any person they meet.  (This part is similar to the novel “Rainbow’s End” by Brin’s friend Vernor Vinge.)

Surveillance in public is a big topic these days.  I’ve worked with CDT and EFF on, which asked law academics to propose doctrine for surveillance in public.  Facial recognition and drones are two of the hot privacy topics of the year, and each are significant steps towards the pervasive sensor world that Brin contemplated in his 1999 book.

So, if you like thinking about Big Ideas in novel form, buy Existence.  And, if you would like to retain the Fair Information Principles in a near future of surveillance in public, consider Brin more carefully  when you imagine how life will and should be in the coming decades.

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4 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for calling attention to this!

    I’ve been somewhat frustrated by Brin’s claims that the way to deal with the proliferation of cameras is to embrace it and surveil the powerful. My frustration is that he fails to grapple with the issue that the powerful will apply their power to exempt themselves from both surveillance and consequence.

    But I’ll give Existence a shot.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    The powerful obviously have some limit to their power, or you wouldn’t see progressive taxation extracting most of the cost of government from a tiny fraction of the population. The key if we take Brin’s suggestion seriously, would be to push hard for the powerful to NOT be exempt from surveillance.

  3. Jim Maloney says:

    The oft-quoted “Knowledge is power” comes to mind (although I prefer the Spanish infinitive-based version, “Saber es poder”).

    Anyway, the best means of making yourself exempt from surveillance may derive simply from knowing how to make yourself exempt from surveillance. For example, back in April 2008, when GPS tracking was being used with increasing frequency in the absence of pre-Jones warrant requirements, I ran an article (“GPS: The Dark Side”) in an alumni mag (the last issue I edited) that concluded with a picture and description of a little plug-in jammer. Plugging into a cigarette lighter receptacle or other 12V source, it simply transmits a signal on the same frequency that GPS receivers monitor for the relatively weak satellite signals, drowning them out so the unit can’t figure out where it is. (If it doesn’t know where it is, it can’t transmit that info to anyone else.)

    Sure, the powerful will probably be able to make themselves exempt. But the clever can, too, and perhaps without drawing quite so much attention to themselves. It’s the mammals and the dinosaurs all over again…

  4. Ken Arromdee says:

    “The powerful obviously have some limit to their power, or you wouldn’t see progressive taxation extracting most of the cost of government from a tiny fraction of the population.”

    In this context, government should count as part of “the powerful” (though I have no idea if Brin counts it that way.)

    And another flaw is that even if the powerful don’t take measures to actively keep surveillance from applying to them, it may end up naturally not applying to them simply because they’re powerful. If a credit card company charges me a higher interest rate because I am a Star Trek fan and statistically, Star Trek fans have a higher chance of default, that’s bad. The fact that I can also find out what show the credit card company’s CEO is a fan of won’t help; the existing power relationship means that the privacy violation only harms me.