Brin’s “Existence,” the Fermi Paradox, and the Future of Privacy
posted by Peter Swire
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 USvJones.com, 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.