Thursday, March 19, 2009
I live in an unusual house. It was originally one of the first Loblaws stores on a busy street in West Toronto Junction. It is unmistakably a retail storefront building. When I renovated it and turned it into my living space I wondered what to do with the front exposure. I toyed with the idea of leaving it uncovered and simply living my domestic life in full view. I was reminded of the 1921 novel "We" by the Russian Zamyatin. The world in which the protagonist D-503 lives is made mostly out of glass. People literally live in glass houses and everyone's daily activities are visible to anyone passing by.
I decided against such a bold move and constructed a wall inside the storefront to separate my private space from public view. During the past 4 years in which I've lived behind that wall I've been engaged in another kind of exposure. I started blogging, signed up for Facebook and began using Twitter along with over a dozen other social networking platforms that essentially reveal more and more about what I'm doing when, where, and with who. It allows anyone willing to sort through the content to be able to develop a pretty good sense of who I am and what I stand for. People who choose to participate in this Panopticon are tearing down walls and replacing them with windows. We are moving closer to what D-503 must have experienced in his world.
It should be noted that George Orwell didn't really hide the fact that his 1984 owed a great deal to Zamyatin's novel. In Orwell's dystopian world Winston Smith and all of its citizens are constantly monitored with a telescreen. This is a two-way communication device that allows for the mass distribution of information while also monitoring the activities of its viewers. Big Brother's omnipresent omniscience of everyone's activities is stifling and oppressive. Big Brother goes even further by trying through the activities of the Thought Police to monitor what each person is thinking. The irony in our world is that many of us are doing the job of the Thought Police by voluntarily posting everything about ourselves online.
Why are we so untroubled by so much exposure? It probably has to do with the general feeling that our governments are not so nefarious. Most people don't seem to think that our governments are evil or corrupt enough to use this information against us. In short there is a trusting relationship between the parties involved. You have probably noticed that when you share private information with a close friend, a stronger bond and trust will often result. This will work as long as your friend is not a psychopath, in which case they will simply file it away and use it against you in the future to manipulate and control you.
Big Brother is not as evil and psychopathic as the conspiracy theorists would have you believe but perhaps it should be the cause for some concern that all of this information that we cast out into cyberspace is permanently available if, or when, an evil and nefarious government does take control. Even with that realization I'm still not very concerned simply because as we increasingly replace the walls around us with glass we make increasing demands on our governments to do the same. As we develop a taste for transparency and it's transformative powers we insist that anyone or group that we elect to rule us will have to reciprocate the exposure. We are Little Brother and we insist that Big Brother also live in a glass house or we will simply refuse to support or elect them.
If you live your life afraid to express your inner fears and desires to your friends because you worry that you might not be able to trust them not to use it against you, then you might find yourself without any friends. By putting it all out there for everyone to see you'll find that others will feel more comfortable doing the same and eventually a more open and transparent situation will result; in your personal life as well as your politics. But this will only work if you demand the same from your friends and leaders.