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 ...

This became a large-scale trend in China; it also made headlines in Canada, where the Toronto G20 summit turned from an act of police brutality into a moment of citizen vengeance because cameras caught it all. CCTV is indeed a tool of government, but what we learned in 2010 is that it is not just a tool like a gunship or a prison but often more like a job centre or a primary school: It helps people get the upper hand.

What has happened, to a great degree, is a technological power reversal. When CCTV cameras began going up in public squares and residential streets, and when high-speed fibre-optic cable began connecting home computers into a global network, many of us had images of 1984: These were the state's eyes peering into our private lives.

Bentham's views of privacy have become well known in recent decades mainly because political philosophers such as Michel Foucault have used them as metaphors for the working of society and the state: Because there is a universal observing mechanism, with the forces of power at the centre, we are compelled to behave and conform. The idea that the state might be observed and corralled by citizens at the centre was only ever described as a remote, revolutionary unlikelihood.

But something much more interesting has occurred, something more like Inglourious Basterds or Erin Brockovich than anything by Orwell, who couldn't imagine information technology flowing in both directions, or Mr. Foucault, who saw imposed order as inevitable. In an online world, there are many more of us to watch them than there were of them to watch us. The technology was bound to work against those who value privacy most - but it was only this year we learned those privacy-lovers are very often governments.

I have discussed this matter with some people who strongly believe in the WikiLeaks agenda and who angrily refuse to see their movement as having the same value as ubiquitous CCTV or a wide-open Facebook. After all, they say, there is a difference between government employees doing jobs in secret and ordinary citizens maintaining a private life.

But it is not as if open windows benefit only public employees - or, conversely, that government workers should be the only ones to endure the constant probability of surveillance.

If that weren't clear enough, another huge story of 2010 made it so. The mass rape of children by Roman Catholic priests, formerly thought to be a constellation of tragic instances in a handful of countries, crystallized this year into a terrible whole, encompassing hundreds of priests in scores of countries and overlooked by a tolerant Vatican.

What brought these crimes to widespread attention was a new-found belief in exposing private traumas to the wider world, in invading the privacy of a formerly holy occupation - in short, in thousands of people engaging in a new set of behaviours of which Facebook and WikiLeaks form only a small part.

Will this new transparency actually provoke us all to be better citizens? We know that Bentham's prisons didn't change behaviours. One of the largest-scale uses of Panopticon prisons was by Fidel Castro to imprison thousands of democrats after he seized power in 1959; there's no indication they changed their behaviour.

Have the Cablegate leaks changed government behaviour? It's too early to tell, though we do know that Parliament was unquestionably improved by Brass Crosby driving it into the public eye, and that the end of the Vietnam War was provoked by the very Cablegate-like Pentagon Papers. Constantly watched governments do seem to behave better.

What about the private sphere? Have the revelations of rape changed the behaviour of priests? We may not know for a generation. But we do know that the news of these abuses, spread across a million social-media outlets, has caused a great many people to abandon the church, which may be a larger good. They have found a new god, after all. And it is them.



Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories