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Monday, December 20, 2010

The utopian dream of total openness

Saturday's Globe and Mail had an interesting focus article on what the author describes as the realization of Jeremy Bentham's two hundred and twenty seven year old utopian vision of our modern world: a world where instead of private individuals judged only by God, we have 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. (Read the original article at:


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 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."


Our Globe and Mail writer argues that 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.


"Privacy is not so much a right or a luxury but a bad idea, a social evil."


My question is, as much as the world has changed in the two hundred years since Bentham's utopian society was dreamt of, are we not still living in a world of secrecy? As telling as the recent Wikileaks scandal has been, doesn't the anger expressed by governments worldwide as a result of the newly shared information say loud and clear that we do not have the right to know what is going on in our countries? Is our perception of transparency perhaps just a carefully constructed smoke-screen?

-GlassFrog Blogger Vanessa


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