The End of Secrecy

Contents outline
Humans as information processing organisms.
Examples of how electronic communications lead to reduced secrecy.
Prospects for reduced secrecy in government and corporations.

The Information Age. Humans are several million years along in evolving to adapt to the self-generated niches of human society. For example, humans are very well adapted to the task of managing the subtleties of information exchanges in social settings. It is likely that human brain evolution during the past million years has been more heavily influenced by the social environment than by  the need to adapt to non-social environmental changes like climate changes or competition with other species.

n"Much of human niche construction is dominated by socially learned knowledge and cultural inheritance, but the transmission and acquisition of this knowledge is itself dependent on pre-existing information acquired through genetic evolution or complex ontogenetic processes." Laland, et al

Niche Construction : The Neglected Process in Evolution

by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland and Marcus W. Feldman

Children easily learn social conventions that govern telling the truth, keeping secrets, and constructing deceptions. Complex human societies institutionalize rules that codify legal boundaries beyond which we are not to venture with our socially adaptive skills of deception.

There is a slippery slope from the extreme of complete openness down to confidentiality to secrecy to deception with fraud at the bottom of the scale. We honor those who deal with us honestly and are easily angered to learn that we have been injured by deception.

----------The Slippery Slope----------------
openness-  characterized by an attitude of ready accessibility
          (especially about one's actions or purposes); not
confidentiality- discretion in keeping secret information ( limited secrecy)
secrecy- the condition of being concealed or hidden
deception- misleading.
fraud- Deception deliberately practiced with a view to gaining an
        unlawful or unfair advantage; artifice by which the right
        or interest of another is injured

"Keeping the truth to one's self is no lie." -Spock

The Written Information Age. Written language is several thousand years old. The idea that reading and writing are for everyone and that democratic government can be built upon literacy is a relatively new idea. It can be argued that only the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting social revolutions (the end of slavery, equal rights for women, laws against child labor) have made it possible to explore social systems that depend upon universal literacy.

The age of written information has seen the institutionalization of secrecy as a right. We have laws that protect the rights of individuals, governments and corporations to keep secrets. However, we also have legal requirements that "the whole truth" be spoken in court and Freedom of Information rules and Open Governance rules restrict the secrecy of government entities.

The Electronic Information Age. Technologies for electronic data processing and the electronic storage and transmission of information have amplified the importance of information in human societies. We are quickly moving out of the era during which governmental, educational, and corporate information could be easily lost in filing cabinets. We now have the tools required to make all of our "public" records truly public and readily accessible to all.

Momentum. We have inherited a culture in which secrecy is the default method of dealing with information. Entire industries have grown up around the tasks of keeping secrets and selling access to information. This social system of secrecy seems as natural to most people as breathing. However, some sociologists and information technologists have initiated a dialog aimed at asking to what extent it might be possible explore new social systems with far greater information openness than has been possible in the past. We can refer to these new social systems as "open information social systems".

Niche creation often takes place in fringe environments where the organisms that dominate existing niches cannot easily follow. What is the natural environmental niche where experiments can begin with open information social systems? While much of the internet is devoted to- and funded by commercial activity that is still governed by the culture of secrecy and the marketing of information resources, there is a fringe of the internet where open information social systems have begun to grow and evolve.

(click image for larger view)
nodesPubMed Example.
Medline was a fee-based system for accessing biomedical information since it went online in the early 1970's.

With the arrival of the HTML internet protocol and web browsers in the early 1990's, the time was ripe for easy access to biomedical databases. At that time, a search engine called Entrez was used with a genetic sequence database distributed by CD-ROM to subscribers.
 Al Gore helped to promote Entrz/PubMed, a government-funded, internet-accessible database for free access to biomedical information.

PubMed was originally developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the National Library of Medicine, for scientists using gene sequence databases. Initially, only Medline journal citations which included gene sequences were included in the database. Now PubMed includes all of Medline, the store house of biomedical research articles. Before this open-information government initiative, private companies restricted access to biomedical research journal articles and made money selling access. While a few tech-savy people in the government were able to make PubMed a viable government initiative, it should be realized that it was the efforts of computer geek genetics researchers that created the foundation for PubMed.

The process of making biomedical information available to everyone continues with the creation of new electronic (internet) journals and increasing availablity of free full text journal articles. The old system of journal publishers selling access to information is being replaced by a new system through which the researchers use the internet to make their results freely available to their peers.

The education process is also increasingly opening up as online learning resources become available, for example, some textbooks are now available online.

ilInformation Liberation by Brian Martin

Another example of information liberation is the open source software initiative. Traditionally, software companies kept their code secret and did not invite users to work on the code and improve it. As explained at www,

"The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing."
has a large Open Source software development website which provides free services to Open Source developers, It also has a large repository of Open Source code and applications available on the Internet. For example, phpMyAdmin is an Open Source tool that provides a user-friendly interface for the administration of MySQL databases over the Web. is both an open-source application and project. It is free. The product is a multi-platform office productivity suite compatible with all major file formats.

"Most information created or collected by the government is not routinely disseminated to the public. These are the unpublished records. Freedom of Information laws are a tool to give the public access to this body of information. Freedom of Information laws are necessary because government employees and public officials often want to hold onto these records as though they are state secrets. The culture of secrecy in government is not unlike the culture of secrecy in many areas outside of government. People know that information is related to power, and often they want to control information, in order to enhance their own power."- Ralph Nader

Access to Government Information
Here are some examples of attempts to push governments towards greater openness:

Resources for USA government information access.
Canadian resources.
United Kingdom.

fBuilding the Virtual State: Information Technology and Institutional Change
by Jane E. Fountain

Are governments willing to work in the open? Will voters demand more openness from politicians?

Corporate Transparency.
Are corporations willing to work in the open?
Before modern times, people were often at the mercy of local businesses. Now, consumers can shop online and select vendors who position themselves in particular consumer niches ("green", "natural food", "no animal products", "non-gene modified", etc). Individuals are increasingly called upon to make their own investment decisions (rather than, say, relying on employer decisions for retirement fund investment). Investors increasingly want to know that companies have certain values and are not simply scams for shifting investor funds to wealthy business owners. Increasingly, corporations must be open about their operations in order to attract investors and customers. Openness also provides a way for businesses to avoid being victimized by "bad apple" employees who are willing to break the law.

Software companies are developing the means by which corporations can openly manage their operations. Some software-oriented companies are leading the way towards a reality of an open corporation for which all business practices are open to publi view.

"Mandate ZEUS is a one stop solution for the forward looking enterprise who have the desire to tackle corporate governance and risk management at its root, not only Mandate ZEUS provides a system that yield transparency in all business activities, transaction, administrative tasks, projects, processes, reporting and people from the bottom up, Mandate ZEUS is the first management tool that puts the board of senior managements and entire management team in complete understanding of the big picture with real time dynamic on line analysis to allow control and execution of management’s directive and visibility to support accurate decision making."

We still exist (2004 when this document was first produced) within a social environment that has mementum behind the idea that most government and economic activity should take place in secret. I am interested in the idea that we may now have the required technology for COMPLETE openness in government and business activities. I am interested in experiments that can test this possibility and push to continue developing information sharing technologies that facilitate openness.
Example: a developing Robinsonian Cooperative Corporation, Oceanbase

-John Schmidt

Contents outline
Humans as information processing organisms.
Examples of how electronic communications lead to reduced secrecy.
Prospects for reduced secrecy in government and corporations.