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

This summer, he changed Facebook so that total openness and automatic sharing of private information is the default setting for all 600 million users. Greater concealment and security is still available, but only as an option to be added later. Most people, and most people's mothers, were suddenly thrown into the realm of mutual observation.

There were complaints, and a slight reversal, but most users seemed to embrace the new virtual nudity. After all, they were joining the five million Foursquare users whose phones constantly send their precise locations to the world; the scores of millions of teenagers on Myspace and MSN who are growing up believing their slightest intimacies are best made available to the world's permanent archives; and the more than 200 million Twitter users who often reveal their id, superego and refrigerator contents to unknowable numbers of complete strangers.

The Zuckerberg view of the end of personal privacy happens to be strikingly similar in philosophy and in effect to the Julian Assange view of the end of government privacy. In fact, the strange Swedish case involving Mr. Assange's sex life seems to bring the two together. They have both acknowledged this, with Mr. Zuckerberg saying this week that "at a very high level some of the themes could be connected."

Both WikiLeaks and Facebook recognize that the individual leaks or postings aren't important - it doesn't matter whether profound secrets or ordinary banalities are revealed. Rather, it's the change in human behaviour produced by the possibility of exposure.

Mr. Assange, in his essays and manifestos, argues that the very existence of a ubiquitous leak-inducing mechanism may cause governments to act accountably. He also hopes they will topple, but there he is misunderstanding his own philosophy. In truth, he is much closer to Mr. Zuckerberg. They both want to create an all-encompassing sense that we are always seated in the living room, with someone peering over his newspaper from the opposite couch.

I had not recognized the full implication of this until I read a great article in The Times of London written by comedian Frank Skinner, who found himself marvelling in morbid curiosity at the Cablegate revelations while learning, through Twitter, that a number of complete strangers had seen him in another comic's audience and tweeted that he hadn't laughed. He saw that he and the State Department had become part of the same phenomenon, and recognized its historical origins.

"People used to behave well because they thought God was watching," he wrote. "Now, the secular world has come up with its own hidden observers. I wasn't happy that Twitter caught me not laughing or that CCTV caught me breaking the law, but I took a breath, set my jaw and nodded respectfully to the truth - thus acknowledging the time-honoured concept of the fair cop."

The death of God ended the sense of being watched. Sociologists such as Robert Putnam, in his classic book Bowling Alone, noted that Westerners had lost bonds of kin and community, their TV-and-telephone world stripping them of ethical duties.

But suddenly, in a Benthamite apotheosis, we have a new god, watching us and preparing to judge us at any moment, keeping us on the straight and narrow. And we are that god. Like the laughing spectators in the observation tower, we all serve as prison guard and spectator, prisoner and warden, all at once.

Of course, the most powerful government in the world has not been quite so magnanimous toward its electronic-boundary dissolvers. Between the tens of thousands of Iraq war documents, hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan documents and the 250,000 diplomatic cables, all allegedly leaked by Private Bradley Manning to the media through the curious middleman agency WikiLeaks, the U.S. government (or a few colourful parts of it) has become an open book.

But Washington is not alone. Once-sovereign governments have found it necessary to open their books and expose their secrets in mammoth bailouts, and this week the European Union met in an effort to make this fiscal non-privacy permanent. And in a stunning range of incidents in dozens of countries, citizens have used video images - taken themselves, or obtained by courts from CCTV cameras - to bust or implicate police, guards and officials in abuses.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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