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Radical Transparency removes almost all potentials for conflict. Why?

Conflict requires secrecy by some people (bad guys), which is why neither utopian nor anti-utopian novels try to describe such a society in which everything done by everyone – individual, corporation, government – is completely transparent. When everything is out in the open, conflict is difficult to do.

It is hard to write a gripping novel without conflict. Who will read a lyrical ode to a perfect society? Readers need good guys beating up on bad guys in the Final Battle.

In many dystopias, transparency is one-way, i.e., a powerful entity (corporation or government) which is itself totally secretive can know everything about every citizen at every time.

But a two-way transparency makes conflict impossible.

Still, I’d like to see a SF novel giving it a try – even if it works around the problem by subverting the Radical Transparency society: exploring the way it works when it works, and what conflict happens when a group or an individual manages to opt out of it and keeps something secret.

And how do you achieve Radical Transparency? If it is mandatory, it is a dictatorship (or spying at a massive scale), or is there a benevolent way to do that? If it is voluntary, someone can always subvert it (pure Game Theory here).

Example: if what every government official says, does or types is immediately visible to everyone, it is impossible to plan a war as enemies will see the plans. Does it mean there are no wars, or that people subvert the transparency by planning wars in non-obvious ways – coded language, etc.



  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    May 16, 2009

    Oh, you would put this out here when my brain is buzzing on another topic. 🙂 For now, I’ll just say that there will always be those who have to subvert. The only way to stop them is to employ them–let them be the people who figure out how to keep things transparent.

  2. #2 Jeff Darcy
    May 16, 2009

    The axiomatic association of conflict with secrecy seems highly suspect to me. When I think of the conflicts in my own life, secrecy almost never seems to play a part. It doesn’t play a part when I have a dispute with a coworker over how best to implement something. It doesn’t play a part when I get annoyed at another driver for failing to yield or merge properly. It doesn’t play a part in my political or economic discussions, which mostly revolve around the application of well known theories to well known circumstances. When I’m in conflict with someone, no matter how bitterly, it’s usually because our priorities or interpretations differ, not because of hidden knowledge.

    Transparency is an antidote to *some* problems, but many kinds of conflict can exist even in a completely transparent environment. Wikipedia (not to mention the blogosphere) seems to be doing a fair job of showing that transparency can even *increase* conflict by bringing in more partipants/agendas and raising the reputation stakes so that no tempest ever stays discreetly in the teapot.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    May 16, 2009

    Fair point. I was using the term ‘conflict’ loosely, thinking mainly about whatever is needed for fiction to work: two groups conspiring to annihilate each other.

  4. #4 GL
    May 16, 2009

    A suversive group could use randomness to cause mayhem, nobody can pick up their thoughts of they do not knowi what they are going to do themselves.

  5. #5 Peggy
    May 16, 2009

    I read lots of fiction – science fiction even – that doesn’t involve two groups trying to annihilate each other, so it’s not clear to me exactly what you mean. I think that even in a “transparent” society interpersonal conflict will still exist, individuals and companies and governments will still compete, and groups with different philosophies will still be in conflict. The difference would be that savvy individuals or groups would be able to use transparency – or apparent transparency – as a tool in such conflicts. People will still be people.

    The reputation-based society that the post you link to talks about actually sounds to me a lot like Cory Doctorow’s Whuffie-based society. In his “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” the conflict arises from human nature: interpersonal disagreements and people trying to manipulate the system for personal gain. And that’s how I think even a completely transparent society would work. Or maybe I’m just a pessimist about human nature.

  6. #6 Anthony
    May 16, 2009

    See this article on Wikipedia. In particular, I recommend Asimov’s The Dead Past and Clarke’s The Light of Other Days.

  7. #7 Left_Wing_Fox
    May 16, 2009

    One story comes to mind: “A Miracle of Science”. It’s a complete story (I.e. beginning, middle, end, cohesive arc, and is no longer ongoing) and available free online:


    The “Radical Transparency” in the story is the group-mind of Mars, which serves as a networked psychic supercomputer, which manifests through a martian police officer in this sci-fi cop drama.

    It also offers a novel take on the Mad Scientist Sparks of Phil Foglio’s “Girl Genius”, in that the villain of the piece is suffering from “Science Related Memetic Disorder”, a Mad Scientist memetic condition that results in bursts of criminal brilliance.

  8. #8 HP
    May 16, 2009

    Peggy got there first, but I’ll just reiterate that Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is pretty much exactly what you’re talking about. It’s neither utopian nor dystopian, but rather, um, extopian? xenotopian? It paints a picture of a society with its plusses and minuses, but one that is undeniably different from ours.

    It’s also released under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license that freely allows remixing and adaptation. It’s about as close to “Open Access Literature” as you can get — there are multiple translations, audio drama adaptations, illustrations, etc. (not all, by far, at the link above), all done by fans.

    (I should probably note that I’m not a huge fan of the work myself, so this isn’t a ringing endorsement — I thought the ending was weak and unsatisfying, and Doctorow’s not what I would call a master of dialog, but it’s definitely worth a read, in any of several online and print formats, some of which are free, and some you can pay for.)

  9. #9 Andrew
    May 16, 2009

    David Brin (who wrote the transparency non-fiction book _The Transparent Society_) has written novels that take place in societies which are much more transparent than ours: for example “Earth” and “Kiln People” (I’ve heard that he’s working on another novel in that kind of society).

  10. #10 Pteryxx
    May 16, 2009

    We have a fair example of transparent conflict now: evolution vs. creationism. All the evidence for evolution is right there for anyone to read and understand, yet they don’t. All the spin and invented arguments and text of the bible is there for anyone to read and discuss, but most reasoning people see it as factual nonsense. Manipulation still exists with full transparency: spin, casting aspersions, community membership, threats of punishment, fear, insults, and simply being the first to speak.

    I imagine a full-scale societal conflict with full transparency would be much like a holy war.

  11. #11 Richard Minerich
    May 16, 2009

    What about a situation where someone is being very clever and manipulating things so subtly as to be undetectable by the masses. This is one thing people worry about with super intelligent AI.

    Just because the information is available doesn’t mean it will be understood.

  12. #12 Benjamin Franz
    May 16, 2009

    You have to distinguish between transparency and omniscience. The two are not equivalent. While omniscience makes the tension of partial knowledge impossible, transparency does not. You can have complete transparency while remaining completely ignorant of key facts. Before transparency dispels ignorance, you have to ask the right questions.

  13. #13 Mark Francis
    May 16, 2009

    Benjamin Franz has nailed the problem. Transparency is good, and is necessary, but those able to better sell what truth they want people to know can still conquer the truth.

  14. #14 Who Cares
    May 16, 2009

    Transparent societies are based on the premise that someone might be watching, not that all things done are being watched.
    This gives a way to get conflict started. For example an unibomber style terrorist will still be able to bomb people until (s)he writes a manifesto which will then be recognized by family.

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    May 16, 2009

    Alfred Bester made a good running start at this question over 50 years ago with The Demolished Man. Its plot in one question: how to get away with murder in a future society where the police can read minds?

    Pray that Spielberg never gets his hands on it!

  16. #16 anon
    May 16, 2009

    “Conflict requires secrecy by some people (bad guys) … a two-way transparency makes conflict impossible.”

    I also think that this doesn’t sound right. Let’s see: bar fights, angry grizzly bears, hungry T. rex, Borg …

    Not much secrecy involved, just “(I) (Intend to stomp) (You)”.

    Anthropologist Martin Harris argued that the Aztecs made war against their neighbors for purposes of cannibalism, and imagined then marching under the banner “We’ve come to eat you.” Most anthropologists now reject this theory, but I can imagine it in fiction.

    If we want to say that *conflict in fiction* requires that the author keeps some of the facts under wraps, we might have something, but I didn’t understand you to be saying that.

  17. #17 anon
    May 16, 2009

    Correction: anthropologist Marvin Harris


  18. #18 Coturnix
    May 16, 2009

    I am amazed and delighted with knowledge and wisdom of my readers, as always!

  19. #19 daedalus2u
    May 16, 2009

    Chess is a game of conflict that is completely transparent.

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    May 16, 2009

    I see that David Brin’s Earth and Kiln People have already been mentioned. Both of ’em are good yarns.

    Asimov’s “The Dead Past” isn’t so much about a transparent society itself, although its hypothetical sequel might be.

  21. #21 Blake Stacey
    May 16, 2009

    Oh, and the first episode of Aeon Flux plays with the radical transparency idea, although I doubt anyone is too surprised to find that Trevor Goodchild is still hiding something.

    Anything which comes into the transparent society from outside can still pose a threat and create conflict, particularly in SF, where the process of discovery is itself a source of drama (the whines of certain critics notwithstanding). What happens when your stable, healthy, comparatively sane human society receives a radio broadcast from an extrasolar planet? What happens when a new disease breaks out in the community? Nobody has anything to hide, but they still don’t know the answers.

  22. #22 Mike Brotherton
    May 16, 2009

    Came to mention Brin and Kiln People, now for apparently the third time.

    As a science fiction novelist, I’d like to also chime in on the basic premise, which is false. You can have plenty of conflict with transparency. Ever hear of chess? No hidden information, plenty of conflict, plenty of uncertainty, plenty of drama. How about relationships where people talk all the damn time? Plenty of information, plenty of conflict again. If we’re talking war, specifically, or criminal conspiracy, harder but far from impossible.

    Any time different people/groups/states have conflicting goals, there is the opportunity for conflict and whether or not there is transparency means nothing. It just means a different story, one that need not be any less transparent or engaging.

    Besides, there are a bunch of ways to hide information in a transparent society. I’m sure everyone here can think of a few.

  23. #23 Donna B.
    May 16, 2009

    ahh… transparency isn’t transparent because its creators have included a layer of non-transparency — which, of course can be seen through by an elect group of people…

    This is true only if you are one of the ‘elite’ who can see through a certain transparency. The rest of the people can see that this ‘transparency’ of the elite is akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes.

  24. #24 SteveL
    May 17, 2009

    What about Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy? In the Neanderthal society, everyone wore a device which recorded everything they did and what happened around them. But the information was stored away and could only be accessed under special circumstances (basically a court order). For example, if a violent crime occurred, the information was accessed to find out who committed the crime. But under normal circumstances the information was considered private and could not be accessed.

    Of course, he didn’t consider any aspects of people trying to beat the system by hacking it.

  25. #25 XiXiDu
    May 17, 2009

    As Anthony suggested:

    The Light of Other Days
    by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

    It cannot get any more transparent than that. Everything is known at any time, forever, by everybody.

  26. #26 XiXiDu
    May 17, 2009

    Indeed there will always be conflict. If you would give every entity its own universe that is perfectly adjusted to it. Or if we all lived in an infinite universe. Still there would be conflict, if it was only for the continiouse struggle of temptations out of which every of your actions was raised as winner.

    There is always only a limited amount of real estate in a certain location. There is more demand than supply. Resources are limited in an finite universe.

    There is always a loser and no being likes losing for if its aim was to do what the opponent experiences as losing, it would be winning.

    Besides, even if everyone could access any information, what would still limit transparency and allow secrecy are the computational limitations. To predict what some loose collective AI entity is going to do, you’d need even more resources, be even more intelligent.

  27. #27 Chris Grayson
    May 17, 2009

    Liberty necessitates privacy.
    Total transparency is not Freedom. To the contrary, it would be closer to slavery.

  28. #28 XiXiDu
    May 17, 2009

    @Chris Grayson

    Privacy is basically self-enslavement. If you are a privacy advocate you don’t need a totalitarian regime to limit your freedom, you limit it yourself in fear of losing anonymity.

    Liberty is when you don’t have to fear transparency.

  29. #29 anon
    May 17, 2009

    The thesis of transparency solving the problem of concealment is false. This is proven by any stage magician. The audience sees everything and knows nothing.

    A lot like politics, but I digress…

  30. #30 anon
    May 17, 2009

    ..and as for XiXiDu’s comment on a finite universe being required, it isn’t. The universe can be as infinite as you like, your maximum use of it will never exceed a sphere 50 light years in diameter centered on the spot you were born. If you instantly ‘had’ everything the femtosecond you were born, in 50 years, that point of influence would be 50 lights out and, since it takes 50 years for its result to get back, you’re going to be 100 years old when you see it. Allowing for no sci fi tricks (warp drive, immortality) .. nobody gets to play with more of the universe’s resources than a tiny 50 light year sphere.

  31. #31 Robert Grumbine
    May 17, 2009

    @28 Demonstrate your thesis by publishing all your personally identifiable information, all account names, and all passwords you have. On the other hand, you’ve already demonstrated your belief w.r.t. transparency by posting under a pseudonym. So don’t bother.

    @Rest: glad to see The Demolished Man already mentioned. If you haven’t read it, do.

    My take is, whatever ills people have been prone to commit in the past, they’ll find ways to do in the future as well.

    Anyone who has attempted a net search for information that definitely was out there, and then spend hours trying to find a reasonable source, knows one of the ways that having ‘everything’ available is an active hindrance to finding out anything useful.

  32. #32 Barn Owl
    May 17, 2009

    Radical transparency would have a different meaning for a person who lives in a remote village, or in an urban slum, or in a crowded refugee camp, in a developing country. Part of my eventual boredom with the majority of science fiction novels is that such people are completely ignored, or dismissed as some faceless mass, or conveniently killed off by a plague or ecological disaster. The focus is typically on the techno-savvy, the wired, and the highly-educated members of developed world society, whether utopian or dystopian; perhaps that’s just a requirement for the genre. I’d like to see the radical transparency concept addressed from the perspective of a character who is outside the dominant technological paradigm. Deliberately leaving the paradigm, after existing within its domain, has undoubtedly been “done” before in traditional sci-fi.

  33. #33 Bob
    May 17, 2009

    If everything is visible, then you run into problems of sifting through it. Imagine a sort of verbal diarrhea. If the officials are putting information out faster than it can be assimilated and understood, then it is hidden. Would you read through 500 pages of red tape to get one sentence?

    In some ways politicians do that already. The Friday late-afternoon data dump puts out reams of paper late Friday afternoon so the reporters are all on their way home. If the story does get out, it breaks on Saturday when people are out enjoying themselves. On Sunday it’s discussed on the morning talkshows while people are sleeping in or going to church. By Monday, when people might start paying attention, it is old news.

    Or think about the Panopticon. If everyone is under constant video surveillance, then why should I care if they seem me naked or my sexual activities. There are more and better looking people out there to spy on. 🙂

  34. #34 Eofhan
    May 17, 2009

    See Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, p161-62, for an excellent account of how complete transparency between a couple of heavily-armed individuals can easily lead to violence. Admittedly, it’s not conflict, though.

    Also, another vote for David Brin’s Earth.

  35. #35 Catharine Zivkovic
    May 18, 2009

    Transparency in no way eliminates conflict. Radical transparency? Feh! Who wants it? Yes, it is important for the scientific process, desirable for the democratic process and in other arenas in which secret keeping leads to ethical problems. However, conflict is essential for growth of any kind and absolutely necessary in all forms of literature. It is a mistake of popular culture to assume that conflict is a bad thing. Without Being and Not Being, you don’t get Becoming.

  36. #36 AK
    May 18, 2009

    AFAIK everybody here has failed to distinguish between conflict and competition. Indeed, the line is often hazy, but consider a chess game. There’s little or no transparency there, since most of the important information is contained within the players’ minds. Is chess conflict or competition?

    Competition is necessary (IMO) to any human society: there’s never enough to go around, even if it’s the attention of people whose interest others crave. The important thing is to draw the line between competition and conflict, or between licit and illicit conflict (however you want to see it).

    But as long as a society has competition, it will have a need for strategic (and tactical) secrecy, which will limit transparency.

  37. #37 Davd S
    May 19, 2009

    Transparency in itself won’t solve the problem. You also need a system of justice that allows one party to take action against the other party.

    For example, suppose that you have a segment of the government torture people and everybody knows about it, but you don’t have a justice system to prosecute the wrong doers in the government.

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