December 18, 2010

Globe and Mail on 'The utopian dream of total openness'

Neat article by Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail: "Just watch us: The utopian dream of total openness." In discussing the trend towards broader transparency, Saunders draws some interesting parallels between 19th century Benthanmites and 21st century WikiLeakians. The comparisons are quite startling and revealing.

It's interesting to note that parliamentary debates were held in complete privacy 200 years ago. It was believed that public access to debates would damage national security. The Benthamites wanted it open, however, 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) to force parliamentary debates into the public. Their language, notes Saunders, is almost identical to words recently uttered by defenders of WikiLeaks and the Cablegate affair.

I find this fascinating; on the other side of the debate, today's governments are essentially arguing along the same lines as their 19th century forebears, that it's in the public's best interest to not know all the wheelings and dealings that go on behind closed doors. While a part of me realizes that classified documents need to remain classified for a reason—namely to prevent overt security risks—another part of me welcomes the peeling back of yet another privacy layer that enables the citizenry to keep a watchful eye on the government they elected to ensure that it remains accountable to them. The 'national security' excuse for confidentiality is likely a cop-out in 99% of the cases; it's a convenient way for governments to hide their activities from a questioning public and press.

Saunders also provides interesting commentary on changing perceptions of privacy and how Facebook and WikiLeaks are part of a broader trend. Both WikiLeaks and Facebook, argues Saunders, recognize that the individual leaks or postings aren't important—it doesn't matter whether profound secrets or ordinary banalities are revealed. "Rather," he writes, "it's the change in human behaviour produced by the possibility of exposure."

Saunders elaborates:
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.

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.
Entire article.

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