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The transparent society

kew-Palm House pond.JPGI realize I cheated. The question was complex: assume a pre-defined character ("Rural Rain") and decide how she would have handled an ethical dilemma involving a portfolio and a bank that appeared to be profiting from shady Middle East arms deals. I said she'd do nothing for now and do more research.

In other words, *I* didn't want to decide. I plead that I've never LARPed before, and my character could be a procrastinator, but that, too, is a cheat. Any fiction writer has to make decisions like these all the time. If you want to write that novel, this is practice. And I failed.

The LARP in this case was a fictional focus group organized by Ruth Catlow as part of real UCL research studying how attitudes to data transparency and consumer ethics are shifting. Recursion 'r' us. The UCL project, Glass Houses, has already produced an umber of papers on subjects like banks and cryptocurrencies, and privacy, transparency, and the blockchain, which is often being mentioned as a method for ensuring privacy and transparency.

The thought process that led to our fictional focus group began with Sarah Meiklejohn, who specializes in cryptocurrencies, and observed that even though Zcash supports anonymity, most users don't take advantage of it (PDF), even though there's no particular social pressure to deter them. Lacking the ability to talk to Zcash users themselves, the researchers developed this exercise to explore why and how people care about transparency and how they might think about changing their behavior based on life experiences or arguments presented to them.

So: the fictitious company True Insight, founded 2013 to use data-based emerging technology and design methodologies to find novel solutions, presented us each with a dilemma involving either finance or food and asked us to make a decision. In breakout groups (by topic), we discussed those decisions. Then we were asked to imagine our lives in 2030, taking into account the consequences of those decisions.

My character's dilemma was whether to move her savings account, which was held by a new online bank, chosen for its flexibility and competitive interest rate. Unfortunately, she had now discovered that 90% of the bank's investments were linked with major arms and military contractors operating in the Middle East and the Gulf. Should she move her account? This is where I felt someone who had just lost her earning power - my character was described as a newly retired care home worker who had finished secondary school - would be slow and cautious. What are her alternatives?

I have to applaud the creativity of the others in the group. Mr Fintech, who in 2020 was the bank's head and was trying to control the PR fallout, had abandoned his wife and children, moved to Thailand, and remarried. Now, he said, he had left the industry and was leading a group "hacking the blockchain". Another's assigned 2020 character was a fellow customer who decided with her partner to move their account for ethical reasons even though it meant denting their aspirations to have children and buy a house. By 2030, she said, the new radical transparency had exposed things her partner had hidden, and they'd split up. "I should have known when he wanted to name our child 'Elon'," she said sadly. Her job had disappeared, and with it her dreams. She was just trying to get by.

My character's description said she liked to read the news. I decided she would conveniently also like to read, now she had time, and would continue to educate herself, including reading books about banking, investment, the Middle East, and the arms trade. I thought she'd be more shocked at the bank's incompetence in failing to spot that it was investing in front for an arms dealer than by its ethical failure. Her 2030, in my imagining, was not much different from her 2020: she'd remain in her small town apartment, carefully managing her resources. A cell of the radical transparency movement that another character mentioned arrived early in her town, and what began as a movement to force ethics on companies and their supply chains had been turned on individuals. In her case, the local group had discovered that a workman replacing her toilet had eaten lunch at a disapproved pub and blamed her for not having prevented this.

Mr Fintech suggested my character should VPN herself thoroughly. Instead, I thought she'd opt for physical world interactions as much as possible because people behave differently when they actually know you. Interestingly, the now-single struggler reported a similar approach. She no longer had "the luxury" to embrace ethical choices, but her area's inability to depend on government was leading them to use barter, trade off the books, and create local currencies.

In 1998, privacy advocates were outraged by David Brin's book The Transparent Society, which argued for radical openness (an idea whose time is apparently trying to come). At the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, I remember him saying that privacy laws protected only the rich and powerful. I never believed that. This exercise showed me, to my surprise, that I apparently do believe that transparency laws could be abused the same way and for the same reason: we live in a society that is judgmental and unforgiving about small infractions. Like so much else, transparency is a tool, not a solution.

Illustrations: The Palm House at Kew (via Kew Gardens).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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