review of the film version
Surveillance technology is advancing, and we can't hold it back. Brin argues that attempts to do so, via privacy and strong cryptography, are not only doomed to failure, but will make things worse, as they will protect only the strong. He argues for the opposite: fewer walls, and more transparency -- and that only in such an open world can freedom prevail.
In particular, he argues for symmetric transparency, where we can see them just as much as they can see us. Only with debate and criticism can errors be uncovered and progress made. It is easier for the powerful to hide, and they will use secrecy to hide their inevitable mistakes, unless forced to be transparent.
I really, really wanted to dislike this book. I tend to come down on the privacy side, not seeing why people should know so much about each other (because not believing such symmetry is even an option). But Brin weaves a compelling argument for the way the transparent world could be.
He paints an optimistic picture of a transparent society where, even though they can, people won't invade each other's privacy, out of a new form of politeness -- they way that people don't just stare at each other in public nowadays. And also because, with symmetric transparency, we could stare right back. Call me cynical, but I doubt it. Never mind the severely disturbed psycho stalkers -- if someone is looking at me, I have to know that before I can look back at them. And Brin's symmetry is legal (I have the right), not technological (I have the knowledge and capability).
The book was written before 9/11, which leads to such prescient passages as:
Post-9/11, the chances of symmetric transparency being an option have receded dramatically. But Brin makes a point that is now even more important to bear in mind: we should not assume that we have to trade off freedom for security; in fact, they increase hand in hand, and, despite various high-profile atrocities, we in the West live in both the freest and the most secure world there has ever been.
But despite these caveats, Brin has produced a well-argued, rational, calm, and thought-provoking book, well worth reading, and well worth debating.
Al Morris lives in a world of dittos -- clay duplicates that last for a day, then have their memories downloaded into the organic body before decomposing into slurry. He's a private detective called in to investigate a ditnapping, a real-murder, and industrial espionage, and all of him are having a bad day.
This is a brilliant mess. The multiple first person viewpoint narrative, all from different copies of the same person, is very well handled. The consequences of the ditto technique are explored in some detail (and there's a demi-semi-plausible scientific gloss), and the very changed world is well-imagined and depicted with dry humour. The detective plot is interesting and intricate. But all that metaphysical mish-mash at the end is completely unnecessary -- all the myriad subplots are sufficient to carry the story, and this could have been, and so very nearly is, much better as an investigation of identity and what it means to be "me" in a world full of temporary and expendable duplicates, and almost totally lacking in privacy.