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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?

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."

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.

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.

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