• Thought Experiment: A Transparent Society.

  • An interesting thought-experiment, looking at how the world would function if everything we did was fully transparent, by virtue of some yet-to-be invented technology that monitored our every action and published it freely.

Introduction.

Can you imagine how you would live your life if every single aspect of it was public knowledge? If every moment was filmed, if every interaction, both digital and in the real world, was logged, and if even every thought was meticulously catalogued and made searchable by anyone? If anyone could literally see what you have seen, right through your eyes?

Would you live a better life, or would you crippled by insecurity? Would the world be a better place because of this, or would you become dull, lacking real humanity?

What if these rules were applied to everyone else as well? How would that change things? I assume that if everyone's lives were completely transparent, there would be instant obvious benefits, such as a mostly complete lack of crime, and the fact that you could leave your doors unlocked even in major metropolitan areas.

But then, let's consider the incredible abuse that would come from this. Dictators would be able to see and hear dissident voices, but conversely, the dissidents themselves would be able to know that the dictators and their state apparatus is onto to them, and so the advantage is somewhat nullified.

The digital noise that we have today would be even greater, and perhaps we would spend a lot of time looking at the experiences of others through their eyes, much like we spend our days now scrolling through news feeds of friends, acquaintances , and strangers that appear to have near-perfect lives.

I've imagined how this could work in quite some detail. All your thoughts, opinions, and experiences, both what you hear and what you see, would be uploaded to a remote system in real-time that anyone is able to search and playback.

In addition, there are advanced search systems that allow us to ask questions, create aggregate data-points based on millions or billions of individual thoughts (i.e. what's Coca-Cola's current brand power, or what do people currently think of a major political power?).

You could ask questions to the system such as asking if someone who's a particular fact, or how much money they believe they have in their bank account. You can even look at a house and ask the system to show you what the current owner had for breakfast ten years ago, regardless of where they were.

For large organizations such as governments and corporations, they might have the resources to pull even more detailed informations and statistics and be able to accurately predict aggregate future actions of how people will behave, and use this insights to then shape behavior.

I've not yet been able to understand how such as society could come about, mostly because it seems such a large jump from where we are now both in technology and in the organization of society. I assume that there would have to be some significant benefits to allowing such an incredible intrusion into our very minds, or a complete lack of choice from birth, like some type of implant that kills the users if it removed, and so you have no choice but to continue to live and be this large source of information about yourself.

Perhaps this might start as a program for the most dangerous criminals and then eventually be rolled out across the globe as the various pros and cons are weighed up against each other.

The other key question, of course, is who would be actively running and owning this system? Instinctively, it feels that this would perhaps be run by a central government that controls most or all of the world, but recent technological improvements have also shown that sophisticated decentralized systems that are not in control of any individual or organization are possible, and so perhaps it would happen in this manner, which would then preclude tampering and changes to records if it was based on some advanced blockchain solution, or something that has yet to be invented.

A few other questions that spring to mind is how it would be to listen in to the thoughts of someone in a different language, and how these would be structured differently perhaps? And taking it a step further, what would it be like to experience being mentally handicap or perhaps even an animal, because if the technology works on humans one would imagine that using it on animals would perhaps be something that is done first as the technology is being improved.

In this thought experiment, I'll go through various possible parts of living and imagine how they could be affected both for the better and for the worse. As we have seen with the changes in the last few centuries, each time there is an improvement, we also lose something that was better before. An instant message is incredible because it connects two or more people anywhere on the planet in an instantaneous manner, and it is essentially free, but does it really compare to a carefully hand-written letter than took weeks to arrive, and that you had been anticipating to arrive with each coming day?

Empathy & Compassion.

In such a society, I would initially assume that there would be a larger degree of empathy and compassion not just from ordinary people, but I can imagine scenarios where billionaires jump into the mind of a refugee in a war zone and truly understand the plight of the people there, and then decide to deploy their signifiant funds to help people in that region.

Generally speaking, our degree of compassion and understanding of the situations of other people should increase dramatically as we experience, probably on a daily basis, what it is like being other people by hearing their thoughts and seeing what they see, experiencing what they experience.

We would become highly attuned to how different people think in certain situations, and there would be case studies of various different types listed that you can could go through and experience, such as the top ten most powerful “falling in love” moments, or spiritual awakenings, and likely lots of funny moments and mistakes that can be relived.

Others may experience what it is is like to have Malaria, cancer, or even what it is like to commit suicide.

One dark aspect of this is that certain individuals may experience jumping off a building via someone else to understand if this is something that they really want to go through in their own lives or not.

Darker still, others may jump into the mind of a killer and experience murder first-hand, and not just for study or interest purposes, but purely because they actually enjoy witnessing this level of brutality.

Local police forces would be able to have young delinquents experience what it is like being incarcerated in a maximum security prison by jumping into the mind of someone that is currently there, with the hope that the experience shocks these young people enough to correct their current actions and have a more meaningful life.

More potently, you could even experience what it is like to be put to death due to your crimes, as an even more stark warning. If there was a mechanism to somehow force individuals to experience snippets of other people’s lives, then this could even be used as a torture device, as you only need to physically harm one person, and then anyone else you would want to cause physiological harm or otherwise “break” could then be subjected to that very same experience.

If this technology was active for hundreds or thousands of years, then things would really get interesting, as you would then have a form of time travel, because you could go back and experience what live was like hundreds of years before you were alive. You could understand how your parents grew up and become who they are, you could experience the moment when your grandfather fell in love with your grandmother, you could experience your own conception (!).

Great scientists and technologists could go back and understand their peers better, and society in general would understand that the problems they are facing now,  while they may be new in the specific form that they are occurring, have probably been experienced many times before in the past.

Even at the turn of the twentieth century, merely twenty years ago, the worries we had then already feel incredibly pedestrian.

Law & Order.

We will cover law and order as our first topic purely because it is the lowest hanging fruit. We are already, in the first few decades of the 21st century, playing with the balance between security and liberty/privacy, and it appears that we are happy to give up liberty and privacy in the name of security. CCTV cameras cover every part of our cities, and our phones track our every move. We know this, and we're fine to live in this manner.

In the world that I am imagining, one with total public transparency, parents could let their children run free, knowing not only that they can instantly check both the location and exactly what is happening to them, but the fact that they are unlikely to be harmed by other individuals because everything is logged.

The other thing to remember is that total transparency like I imagining would have to, of course, mean total surveillance. Such a system would be able to detect common negative occurrences.

For instance, the inevitable incidents and accidents that happen, the emergency services could react within seconds of something happening, with the system detecting any trauma like an open flesh wound or a broken bone, and this would likely save countless lives.

Cars could even refuse to start if the owner was drunk (assuming that they are not fully automated by this point).

The judicial system would become almost perfect over-night, as you would no longer need any witness accounts, you would just pull up the experiences and thoughts of everyone involved, and an algorithm could decide the precise and correct punishment for anyone involved.

One would imagine that the police would become much smaller and more efficient, and armies may not be required at all. After all, you would not only know every element of your enemies' battle plans and strategies, but you would also know the precise designs of every single one of their battle systems. Any technology that they develop, you could play back and understand exactly how it was build, with full confidence that you have all the information at hand.

Perhaps one area where this might not be completely true is when  decisions are aided by machines, because you would not be able to know precisely what is happening inside each computer processor all over the world, but you can just take back a step and realize that you would know the precise programming of every software ever made since the system is implemented, including artificial intelligence systems.

This is not to say that crime would stop completely. In fact, we may assume that there could be an increase in social disorder when everyone can truly know the opinions of the politicians and ruling classes, and also see how the top of the top live in comparison to the rest, but we will cover the topic of empathy and compassion a little later on in this essay.

The other thing that comes to mind, of course, is whether it becomes a crime to fantasize or have thoughts on illegal materials. For instance, right now in our society it is illegal to create or consume child pornography, and this is something that any right-minded person would agree with.

However, it is likely that there are many people, who do to some  defect in their brain or upbringing, are attracted to child pornography and think and dream about, but never take any tangible steps towards abusing children or trying to obtain material that shows such abuse.

Now that we know what these people are thinking, should they be arrested or kept away from children purely because of their thoughts, without having actually done anything illegal?

It's easy to see where such policies lead us. The fact that just thinking about something in such a society can be cause for alarm, it then means that we would literally end up with a thought-police that goes around arresting individuals due to their opinions or any thoughts that they may have had.

There would also be a general sense of embarrassment, especially with men, who tend to think of sex a lot. What if you're in a committed relationship and your wife or significant other sees in your public logs that you've been fantasizing about her friend or her sister? How can you deal with such a situation?

“Kings and philosophers shit—and so do ladies.” Michel de Montaigne.

The above quote comes to mind when discussing such levels of transparency. It would most likely bring the top tier of society down a notch, as it would show to everyone that they really are just human, and that they have the same insecurities and anxieties that are part of everyone's life.

Relationships

Lies would no longer make any sense, but that also goes for all the billions of small white lies that keep society in check each and every day. Arguably, perhaps this would make peoples lives better, as they would receive or be able to uncover the precise negative feedback that they want to hear, but I am not sure if everyone would be ready for living such a life.

For instance, there would no longer be any need for the typical courting rituals between couples. You would instantly know if someone likes (or loves) you, and exactly what they think of you.

There could even be strange situations where you can experience what sex with yourself feels like by jumping into the mind of your partner while he or she was having se with out, and that goes for anyone else as well.

There would likely be a trend away from person to person interactions as people can fulfill the craving that everyone has for social contact without ever leaving your own home.

In Japan, there are currently hundreds of thousands of men, dubbed "Hikikomori Men" that are modern day hermits, rarely leaving their bedrooms and refusing to take part in society. Often this is due to great pressure and expectations around work and education, combined with the isolating effects of modern technology. With the ability to just stay home and experience any number of different lives, it is easy to imagine that millions of people would make the choice to disengage from society and just vegetate at home and experience snippets of other people's lives who are actually fulfilling their potential.

It's an easy way out of the struggle that life is, of waking up each and every day and trying to improve yourself and compete in an ultra competitive world.

Another thing that is easy to imagine is how we would relive moments with our previous significant other, whether that be a boyfriend or girlfriend, a short fling we had, or our previous marriage. We could remember precisely how we fell in love, and the first argument, that time they surprised us in a really sweet way, and so on.

Cheating on your partner with someone else would become a practical impossibility, but because human nature is unlikely to change, what will likely happen is that societal norms will change.  So “open relationships’ and similar arrangements will become more common, where you have a primary partner and then a number of more casual sexual partners

Additionally, you can imagine how initial courting between two partners would be like. You would go through each other’s life highlights and various experiences and previous relationships to understand if this is the type of person that we want to be with.

Of course, we are all a bit crazy, and I am not sure if it would help in forming relationships to have that unveiled immediately at the start of a relationship instead of bit by bit over time as we get to know each other’s quirks and strange habits.

Travel

One point I started to think about, which I also covered in a previous essay on whether the future was going to be a utopia or dystopia, is whether there would be any need to travel any longer.

I guess this depends on how immersive the experience of viewing someone else's memories and experiences is like. If it's just a on a TV screen, it would not be very different to watching a travel show, and probably far more boring.

However, if somehow you could feel like you were there, then things would become interesting.

You want to experience golden sandy beaches on the other side of the world? Just visit someone else's experience and you're done. Why go to all the bother and expense of physically visiting a place? In fact, perhaps people even have jobs that are specifically about visiting incredible places with beautiful partners so others can experience and live their life through theirs.

One can imagine how strange the world of pornography would quickly become as well, but we will table that this discussion for the sake of this essay.

Education

I can imagine that it would be incredible to be able to access the key defining moments of some of the most successful and accomplished people on the planet, to truly understand what it takes to build up incredible skillets. We could watch and experience world class chess players studying strategies, footballers practicing endless free kicks, and swimmers swimming from early in the morning. We could understand how the top professors study books, and categorize the exact study habits of different cohorts of students, according to the grades that they receive.

We would know precisely if there is a correlation between the time that people wake up and their earnings and happiness in life.

It is said that the best way to learn is to teach, and students could literally jump into the driver's seat and experience lecturing the very courses they are taking.

However, very much like the nascent interest today, while there will be lots of opportunities for education for those that seek them out, many people will simply waste their time on endless entertainment.

I imagine that jumping into a particular course of memories will be one step on a series of steps in curing various phobias such as the fear of spiders or public speaking.

The strange thing about the way we currently do education right now, with exams with clear scores at regular intervals, would be   rendered obsolete, as you could easily jump into the minds of others who have just answered the question and see the range of possible answers. Unless, of course, there is a way to detect who is accessing the system that enables the transparency and is then denied the access, very much like you cannot have smartphones during certain types of exams.

Classes will spring up that purely teach students how to use these incredible powers, how to get the most out of observing the experiences of others, and how to view the same events unfolding through multiple points of view to build a coherent picture of what actually happened.

Students will also be able to experience what it is like in their potential future professions before making the choice of which subjects to study. For instance, a young woman who is unsure about whether to embark on medical school, could review the lives and experiences of surgeons and doctors around the world to understand what it actually feels like to work as doctor each and every day. It is likely that the reality would be more interesting and mundane that she expects it to be, and she will have romanticized various aspects of the work while forgetting the more pedestrian tasks that every career entails.

Intrinsic Motivation.

"The first draft of anything is shit." Hemingway.

It is easy enough to get discouraged when starting any endeavour, without hearing everyone's honest criticism of it. Would a society where you instantly knew everyone's opinion of your actions cause a lack of motivation in moving forwards in the first steps of any skill development, at the stage where you are simply not very good at all?

One strategy would be to simply shut yourself out of the system by choosing not to look into other people's thoughts. This is the current-day equivalent of not using Social Media.

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Henry Ford.

This would nullify all the negatives of the system, and you could still seek the occasional specific feedback and then use the system to gauge the accuracy and sincerity of the feedback.

Society & The Economy.

Another interesting aspect would be how the economy would work. The market information would be fully open, there would no longer be any concept of inside trading, and prices for all assets would trade at their fair value.

The invisible hand of Adam Smith's markets would no longer be invisible. Aggregate sentiment data would be available in real time, and there would probably spring up a paradox that if enough people view the aggregate data, the average of that data changes in real time. For instance, if the systems shows that a particular stock feels underpriced by the majority of people that hold an opinion on it, and enough people see this information, the stock is likely to go up, but more interestingly enough the stock may feel more underpriced as more people see this information.

Tools would spring up that scan all “thought-repositories”  to understand what consumers think, and advertising would suddenly become hyper-personalized to rather scary proportions. However, this may in turn become quite useful. If you crazy to cook a particular dish tomorrow evening, your local supermarket or grocery delivery company could send you a message asking if you need the particular ingredients that are missing in your fridge to cook this particular dish.

There would likely be consumer laws that dictated how businesses could “subscribe” to your thoughts and you may need to give them permissions to do so, and so you could then order something purely by thinking about it.

However, we would have to be very careful about manipulation by the media, something that already happens in today’s world without the ability to know what everyone is thinking. Perhaps, news websites would be 100% tailored to suit your own personal interests and understanding of the world, and this would lead to a more significant version of confirmation bias that you can have these days using Google, that shows you personalized search results based on what it thinks you want to see.

One can imagine that it would be difficult to get a job without your company “scanning” your records as part of the hiring process to ensure that you’ve lived an upright existence unto this point.

And talking about points, you might even see society break into “tiers” based on tracked behaviors, thoughts, and actions.  Travel and access to benefits might be restricted based on this, and there would be no such thing as a fresh start.

The world would be a safe place, devoid of crime, but at the same time that we are so intimately connected, it may become an incredibly lonely place, lacking of the real humanity, which is about navigating life with a certain degree of uncertainty.

But on the other hand you would have no drunk drivers, no surgeons operating with too little sleep, no unqualified teachers, no scams of any kind, and so on.  Are these benefits worth the price of total intrusion?

Conclusion.

If such a society and technology were ever possible, it would change life as we know it beyond recognition.  On a superficial level, it would be utopia. No more locking your front door, no more lies or secrets, far more accountability from world leaders, and an increase in compassion and empathy for other people around the world.

However, all these benefits would come at a price, one that I wonder if humanity would be willing to pay. The intrusion into all your thoughts is something that is unprecedented in recorded history so far. It is the last place where you can truly be yourself, regardless of what is happening in the physical world.

In some ways, however, I believe that humanity would adapt to this new technology and get used to it. Let's remember than it is not only your thoughts and experiences that are recorded in real time, but even if you decide to view someone else's experiences, then that also is recorded, and so perhaps there becomes a taboo on viewing experiences from your close friends and family.

Another strange side effect is that two or more individuals could actually communicate with each other across vast distances purely by thinking and then viewing each other's mind feeds.

I can imagine that a clever startup would build an abstraction layer on top of the main system that allowed instant communication between people via the system, with all the viewing and filtering of the underlining mind feeds done in the background. Essentially, this would be the new internet.

There is a coherent argument to say that actually not much would change in the long run. Evolutionary pressures only work with the truth of which individuals in a species adapt better and are more likely to reproduce. The human race is not immune to this by any means, and these long-term forces will continue to play out over tens of thousands of years, regardless of what we do.

We are already, in the early twenty-first century, living in a manner that is so far removed from our ancestors that it would be considered alien to them, and yet we have managed to get used to it and flourish, even while packed into concrete cities that hold tens of millions of us in a relatively small area of land.

And until the day that someone else can access our brains and force us to hold specific thoughts, we are still as free as we can be.