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.