Richard Thieme's
Islands in the Clickstream:

Life in the Nudist Colony

A funny thing happened on the way to the panopticon -- a transformational SNAP! changed all the rules. Life in the nudist colony may never be the same.

Let me explain.

A panopticon is a kind of prison dreamed up by Jeremy Bentham, a nineteenth-century English prison reformer. The cells are wedges like slices of a pie. In the center rises a tower from which guards can see the prisoners but the prisoners can't see the guards or one another. Surveillance is either taking place or may be taking place. Prisoners never know which, so they internalize the possibility of surveillance and behave always as if they were being watched. They become their own guards, what we call "model prisoners."

That used to be a prototype for a totalitarian state. In the electronic era, it's a prototype for the world.

Technology that turned the world into a panopticon invaded our lives quietly, one sensible function at a time.

Take the loss of privacy. Employers always owned work produced by employees but once it was done on networked computers, they could see everything at a glance. Clandestine "sniffers" intercept mail, filch memos. As the NSA listens to the electronic communications of the world, flagging key words or patterns of activity, any person -- employer or not -- with the means, the motive, and the opportunity can observe the virtual life of a network.

Global Positioning System satellites mean that a vehicle need never get lost again ... and also that no one can go so far as to get out of sight.

The intelligent transportation system is being sold as a reasonable way to manage overcrowded corridors. Video surveillance of highways to monitor traffic jams turns into video surveillance, period. Electronic scanning of ID numbers as cars speed through toll booths becomes a universal record of who went where when. It's called "function creep," how things created for one purpose migrate into other domains.

Interlace the data gathered by surveillance with databases that cross-reference every electronic transaction, then mine that data for patterns of behavior ... and we inhabit a panopticon. We are all prisoners and guards, as Andre Gregory said in "My Dinner With Andre," preventing one another from escaping.

Next ...

add the speed (i.e. light) with which behaviors that used to be called "back-stage" (the original definition of "obscene" is an action performed off stage) are brought into our living rooms twenty four hours a day. The internet and satellite and cable television are really one thing, a single medium that fuses news and entertainment.

Now let's reflect on the current state of affairs (so to speak) in the White House.

America is a pretty puritanical place. We drool over violence and sex and condemn them at the same time. Anchors on the "nightly news," speaking with the pinched tones of those who hold the high moral ground, told all the details of Diana's death in the guise of an expose of sleazy tabloids. Last week they rushed every snippet of hearsay onto the screen the minute someone whispered a new accusation. MSNBC sneering at the Drudge Report, Tweedledum reproving Tweedledee.

So far, so good. Business as usual. Public outrage mounted as lurid images were manufactured then magnified by the media. We all have our favorites. Mine was the news-anchor telling parents to "turn down the sound" -- psst! psst! -- because what followed was going to be soooooo titillating.

But then ... there came not just a bounce but a huge elastic bunjee bounce of popular sentiment against the press ... not all of it manipulated, I don't think, by the president's men turning the herd like a pack of dogs. Some of it was caused by the fact that we have simply lived long enough now inside a nudist colony.

The rules are different in a nudist colony. Before we lived in the panopticon, there really was such a thing as privacy. People could have what was called a "private conversation," reasonably certain that no one overheard. There were boundaries between private and public life.

Not any more.

Now everybody knows everything about everybody or can if they want to or pay enough. For a while, we still lived by the old rules and rushed to judgement whenever we saw that someone was naked. But in the brave new digital world, we're all naked, and besides, it's happened so many times, we're a little weary of it all.

In a nudist colony, people act as if everybody is wearing clothes. We have to. What someone else looks like doesn't matter any more, or if it does, it can't matter in the same way.

That's the SNAP! that happened last week. Just as the English and Japanese, crowded onto small islands, learned to be polite so they didn't kill one another, people who live in a panopticon will find ways to respect boundaries ... precisely because we can see everything. Civility and politeness -- as William James said of wisdom -- consist in knowing what to overlook.

The rigidly righteous can march from left or right; it isn't a question of politics but of the means by which a civil society organizes itself when everyone's life is transparent. The data isn't all in, of course, and this particular story isn't over. But at least for the moment, the media can not say with a straight face that the "news" consists of gossip and hearsay because the people demand it.

The wisdom of democracy is the belief that common people in possession of the evidence and allowed to consult their own minds and hearts will reach a reasonable consensus. The presumption is that those hearts are filled with common sense. Common sense that agrees with Gandhi, "an eye for an eye" means a world in which everyone is blind. That issues an invitation to those who are without sin to cast the first stone.

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

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