“A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”

From FiveThirtyEight, Arvind Narayanan on the expansion of Internet tracking and fingerprinting (h/t @hypervisible):

There is research that shows that when people know they are being tracked and surveilled, they change their behavior. We lose our intellectual freedom. A variety of things we consider important for our civil liberties — say, marriage equality — are things that would have been stigmatized just a few decades ago. And the reason we got to the point where it was possible to talk about it and try to change our norms and rules is because people had the freedom to talk to each other privately. To find out that there are like-minded people. As we move to a digital world, are we losing those abilities or freedoms? That is the thing to me that is the question. That’s the most worrisome thing about online tracking. It’s not so much the advertising.

This is, of course, the dystopic world of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon:

From this building, the prison’s inspector could look into the cells at any time—and even be able to speak to the prisoners in their cells via an elaborate network of ‘conversation tubes’—though the inmates themselves would never be able to see the inspector himself. Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example‘ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment. The idea of constant, overbearing surveillance is certainly unsettling, but the panopticon and its central inspection principle would, Bentham argued, have multifarious benefits…

The point of Bentham’s Panopticon — what excited him about it, but what in a post-totalitarian reality is the most frightening attribute — was that power of “mind over mind”. It was, for Bentham, a mode of maintaining the present order, of bending people to a social norm.

But here we are, having cheered on Wikileaks in their dissemination of stolen DNC emails. Here we are wondering why we shouldn’t have access to every comment that Hillary Clinton ever made over email. Here we are wondering why Twitter is broken.

You can have radical transparency, or you can have change. You can’t have both.

Change requires privacy. Safety. Occasional silence. It requires concentric circles of trust, moments where you start at the center with that one true friend and voice an idea that anyone else might think is crazy. Or biased. Or dangerous.

The promoters of radical transparency think they are prophets of a new and better order. They are of course nothing of the sort.

You can have radical transparency, or you can have change. You can’t have both. You have to choose.


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