Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

FOCUS

Just watch us: The utopian dream of total openness Add to ...

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago, English reformer Jeremy Bentham proposed an idea that seemed to foretell everything in 2010: What if, instead of private individuals judged only by God, we had a society based on total and universal transparency, in which anyone could be observed at any moment and government activities and citizens' lives could instantly be assessed by anyone who cared to look?

More related to this story

A world without privacy, he declared, would be a world of universal morality: "A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example: and that, to a degree equally without example, secured by whoever chooses to have it so, against abuse."

The most concrete legacy of Bentham's utopianism was his idea, then considered dangerously intrusive, of having Parliament conduct its debates in public and on the record. Up to then, Parliament had taken place in secret, and governments had argued that public access to debates would damage national security.

The Benthamites wanted it open, and their agenda was pushed by free-information radicals such as London mayor Brass Crosby, who helped publishers use illegal mass document leaks - in the form of then-illegal transcripts later known as Hansard - to force parliamentary debates into the public. (See sidebar.) That movement's language seems almost identical to words uttered by defenders of WikiLeaks and its Cablegate leaks this week.

But Bentham's most radical ideas were embodied in the Panopticon. It was a design for a large, circular public building whose occupants, arrayed around its backlit perimeter, can be seen at once from a central tower. This turned open information into a way of life. It didn't matter if there were 50 guards in the darkened tower, or one, or even none: Everyone in any room knew that there was a good chance he was being watched, so he would change his behaviour.

This was most popular as a design for prisons, and there are still hundreds of Panopticon penitentiaries around the world, but it was also meant to be applied to hospitals, schools, factories, madhouses and facilities for the maintenance of virginity (don't ask).

Bentham didn't just want privacy to break down between government and its citizens (or prisoners). He believed that ending privacy would actually make guards, police and many government agencies unnecessary, because citizens would do the observing.

"The doors of all public establishments ought to be thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large - the great open committee of the tribunal of the world," he wrote, noting that the breakdown of privacy would create not only moral behaviour among those observed, but entertainment for those doing the watching: "The scene [in a prison]" he wrote, "though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore, perhaps, not altogether an unamusing one."

We are now living in the world Jeremy Bentham dreamed about. It's not just that our technologies, from GPS-equipped cellphones to social-media accounts to ubiquitous CCTV cameras to full-body scanners, give us the ability to see almost anything about anyone. A great many of us, maybe a majority, have come to believe that privacy is not so much a right or a luxury but a bad idea, a social evil.

In January, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook (just declared Time Magazine's person of the year), took to a stage and denounced privacy as an obsolete value.

"When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard," he said, "the question a lot of people asked was 'Why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?' "

That changed in less than five years. Now, to reveal your private world, and to peer into the intimacies of others, willingly or not, is often considered normal, and Mr. Zuckerberg realized that he could end the world's privacy fixation.

"People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he explained. "That social norm is just something that evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories