Futurist, scientist and author David Brin has long studied what tomorrow could hold for humanity. Several of his novels have been New York Times best sellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. A 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming and the World Wide Web. Brin holds a bachelor of science from the California Institute of Technology, and a master's in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in space physics from the University of California at San Diego. He also spent four years as a research engineer for Hughes Aircraft Research Labs.

His 1998 nonfiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, examines the ramifications of technological advances on individual lives. He begins by presenting a choice between living in two different cities of the near future. Each town appears the same, except for one significant difference.

We have noticed something new about both of these 21st century cities -- a trait that marks them distinct from any metropolis of the late nineteen-nineties. Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a symptom, a result. The real change peers down from every lamp post, roof top and street sign. Tiny cameras survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.

Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?

Consider City Number One. In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public order -- or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.

At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

In City Two, such micro cameras are banned from some indoor places ... but not Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.

Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities, disparate ways of life, representing completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?

Q: It's been a few years since The Transparent Society was published. Has anything happened since then to change your stance that the idea of a freedom/security tradeoff is, as you've described it, "dismal and loathsome"?

A: People tend to find evidence to support what they already want to believe. So naturally, being human, I've seen plenty to support my notions. But the important thing is always to question yourself and get used to the idea that others will question you.

Still, taking that into account, it does seem clearer every day that the 21st century simply has to feature positive-sum games -- or ways everybody can benefit while minimizing the bad. Those prescribing the zero-sum approach -- you can't get one thing

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor