Scott Adams’ transparent burbclave

Paul Raven @ 17-03-2011

Via SlashDot, here’s a provocative post from Scott “Dilbert” Adams where he contemplates the costs of privacy, by trying to imagine a sort of gated community where you surrender a lot of privacy in exchange for living in more affordable, safe and efficient environment. It’s like a hybrid of David Brin’s Transparent Society and Neal Stephenson’s burbclaves… and given how certain sections of the US seem to be reading Snow Crash as a manual of statecraft rather than a dystopian warning, maybe Noprivacyville isn’t as ludicrous as you’d initially imagine.

Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.

Let’s assume that residents of this city agree to get “chipped” so their locations are always known. Everyone’s online activities are also tracked, as are all purchases, and so on. We’ll have to assume this hypothetical city exists in the not-so-distant future when technology can handle everything I’m about to describe.

This city of no privacy wouldn’t need much of a police force because no criminal would agree to live in such a monitored situation. And let’s assume you have to have a chip to enter the city at all. The few crooks that might make the mistake of opting in would be easy to round up. If anything big went down, you could contract with neighboring towns to get SWAT support in emergency situations.

You wouldn’t need police to catch speeders. Cars would automatically report the speed and location of every driver.  That sucks, you say, because you usually speed, and you like it. But consider that speed limits in this hypothetical town would be much higher than normal because every car would be aware of the location of every other car, every child, and every pet. Accidents could be nearly eliminated.

Healthcare costs might plunge with the elimination of privacy. For example, your pill container would monitor whether you took your prescription pills on schedule. I understand that noncompliance of doctor-ordered dosing is a huge problem, especially with older folks.

Interesting to see Adams factoring in one inevitable outcome of a transparent society, wherein things that we’re obliged to keep secret become a much smaller deal once it’s clear to see that they’re actually quite common; I’ve talked about this in relation to today’s teenagers and their propensity for publicly displaying their transgressions of “acceptable” behaviour, but Adams uses it to highlight health insurance issues as well:

Employment would seem problematic in this world of no privacy. You assume that no employer would hire someone who has risky lifestyle preferences, or DNA that suggests major health problems. But I’ll bet employers would learn that everyone has issues of one kind or another, so hiring a qualified candidate who might later become ill will look like a good deal. And on the plus side, employers would rarely hire someone who had a bad employment record, as that information would not be as hidden as it is today. Bad workers would end up voluntarily moving out of the city to find work. Imagine a world where your coworkers are competent. You might need a lack of privacy to get to that happy situation.

Just to be clear, I’m not holding up Adams’ hypothetical city as some sort of ideal or exemplar that I’d want to live in (and I’m not sure that Adams is trying to do that either), but he’s raising some interesting points about the power of transparency to fix prices and squelch certain social ills. However, implicit in Noprivacyville is some sort of panopticon governance system; your basic choices there are rhizomatic or hierarchical, which would make for very different living experiences and degrees of personal involvement with the politics of your new city-state.

I’m sure someone will tell me how I’m totally wrong about this, but I’m convinced we’ll see experiments of both sorts in the relatively near future as the nation-state model continues to collapse under its own structural weight. As Adams says, plenty of people would see Noprivacyville as a worthwhile exchange; how long they’d retain that opinion, however, is very much an open question.

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9 Responses to “Scott Adams’ transparent burbclave”

  1. Sterling Camden says:

    I think a lot of people would run to this utopia with open arms — unfortunately.

  2. tobias s buckell says:

    Psssh, you don’t have to be an SF writer to experience what Scott Adams is talking about, just go live in a small town in the rural midwest where everyone knows everything about everyone else and there’s no privacy…

  3. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    What Tobias said. I think it’s a matter of the Dunbar number to a certain degree. Smaller communities fit within our Dunbar much easier. Basically, Noprivacyville creates a system that plays the role of omniscient town gossip.

    I can see people giving up privacy in exchange for other benefits, sure. It’s not the first generation of first wave that I’m curious about. It’s their _kids_ who had no choice in the matter where things are going to be interesting…

  4. Rick York says:

    Having lived in everything from a town of 600 to New York City, I’m not sure that Dunbar’s number applies. Yes, as Tobias says, small towns do engender nosiness and gossip. On the other hand, in spite of these proclivities, there is generally a pretty deep respect for the privacy of individuals and their families. Because, among other things, smaller communities tend to have a deeper sense of commonality. Of course, one probably does not want to be a newcomer.

    I am often amazed that I see so few references to Brin’s book in works about privacy and civil liberties. It was written in 1999, well before Facebook, Twitter, the growth of Google other aspects of the intertubes which we have today. I believe Brin’s concern was keeping authority in check rather than trying to secure individual privacy. Brin thought back then that individual privacy was a dead letter. What should be done is to keep authority in check by forcing all types of governmental surveillance to be accessible by the public.

    Of course, that was before 9/11 whose worst effect – besides the deaths – was to provide the perfect excuse for the authorities at every level to ignore civil liberties.

  5. Sarah Ennals says:

    My first reaction is to wonder how much *violent* crime would be lowered by such a system – I was actually thinking on the way home today that while people fear cold-blooded murderers, I suspect the real danger is from people with hairtrigger tempers who don’t set out to do harm but do anyway.

    My second thought is that I’d almost be willing to have my behaviour recorded in some public database where it could be viewed, if it would reduce the number of nosy-yet-trivial questions I *personally* have to answer – “Oh, she got takeout last night which is why she’s eating a slice of pizza today at lunch instead of a tuna sandwich like she usually does.”

  6. Khannea Suntzu says:
  7. Doug Lance says:

    Take my privacy and give me that world!

    Old people need to stop bemoaning the loss of privacy like it is some inalienable right.

  8. gmoke says:

    Of course, the municipality and the people who govern it wouldn’t use all that data to manipulate and influence the safe citizenry. That’s why we never change our Facebook privacy settings isn’t it?

  9. Constance F. Iker says:

    It’s been in the blue-prints for a while, no?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/05/technology/techspecial/05oconnell.html