Bend it Like Bentham

April 5, 2004

When most people hear of utilitarianism these days in the United States, if they think of anyone they think of the admirable Peter Singer, or perhaps of John Stuart Mills. When we hear of Jeremy Bentham, we think first – if of anything at all – of Michel Foucault’s critique of the panopticon. We could do better by Bentham and by ourselves.

Foucault, of course, used Bentham’s design of the panopticon ( a building in which a guard in the middle can observe prisoners in each of the surrounding rooms without being observed in return) as an image to exemplify the society Foucault saw us moving toward in which we are constantly under surveillance, and in which the acquisition of knowledge about us constitutes power over us.

There is arguably much more concern in our society right now, and certainly in our academic society right now, over the spread of surveillance technologies than over the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the development of new nuclear weapons, or the placing of weapons in space. Many of us lose more sleep over the installation of street corner cameras than over the warming of the globe. Activists have created “Surveillance Day” on which they “fight back” by aiming video cameras at security guards. A webcam displaying the corpse of Jeremy Bentham is declared to have “turned the tables” and “got back at him.”

This has reached the point of silliness, and despite valid worries, we may now be able to step back and assess the new surveillance technologies more clearly. Bentham asked in his will that his body be dressed, seated in a chair, and displayed in a glass box. Had he known about the Internet, he would undoubtedly have demanded that such URLs as be reserved for streaming a live webcam of his corpse. We have not gotten back at him.

In addition, he was not out to get us. He was insensitive to the concerns that were foremost in the mind of Foucault, but he was responsible for a bigger advance in ethics than all but perhaps a few other people. Most of us generally think like Bentham more than we think like Immanuel Kant or Plato. We’re immensely ungrateful, but we think like he taught us to nonetheless.

Foucault’s sexual life was not acceptable in the society he lived in. Whether this was part of the reason or not, Foucault took it as a basic assumption that people have things to hide and are much better off if they can hide those things. This is a plausible position. Following Bentham, not Kant, many of us believe we are doing some of our friends and loved ones a favor by keeping certain matters, small and large, out of their realm of knowledge. Many of us maintain our right to rebel in tiny ways against our employers or our governments by telling them small lies, by not in effect placing a continuous webcam of our behavior at their disposal. Most of us believe that our intimate behavior with our loved ones should be our private property and that, while not shameful, would be excruciatingly humiliating to have broadcast to the world.

In addition, there are all sorts of misuse of surveillance technologies possible and even currently underway. People spy on others in dressing rooms with hidden cameras. People blackmail each other with information gathered without consent. People embarrass each other by making secretly acquired videos public. Secrets about which people perhaps ought not to be ashamed are nonetheless devastating to them in a society unaccepting of what they hide. Trivial matters block important matters: DNA on a dress derails a presidency. Misunderstandings result in tragedies when too little information is misinterpreted. The FBI creates files on people who support peace, the uses of which that I can imagine are all harmful. All of these concerns, which are quite serious, are often lumped into the category of “the right to privacy.”

And, we are told, all will get worse. We will have Big Brother and even Big Everyone watching us, and this will be bad. People will walk around wearing devices that can videotape, Email, access the Web, and allow Jeremy the Evil One to ruin our lives.

But let’s look at the flipside, playing devil’s advocate for a moment. Many of these concerns about other people knowing “my business” are similar to those raised by a New Yorker who moves to a very small town. The surveillance society, among other things, brings elements of the small town to the city. And, predictably, there are upsides to this, even for those of us who are not cheering wildly and voluntarily displaying every moment of our lives on the Internet.

Some of the concerns over privacy are alleviated if we stop and ask ourselves why it is that we have something to hide. Is the right to fake sickness or cheat on our taxes really a defensible position? Would it not make more sense to work publicly for fairer systems of family leave and taxation? If we are secretly homosexual or transgendered, will it not be better in the long run to make those states acceptable in our society rather than hiding them? I have no right to ask any individual to reveal any secret, but am asking us all to look at the larger picture.

If we’re throwing away our best politicians because of infidelity, wouldn’t it be wiser to make a better judgment of the importance of that concern than to protect the politicians’ ability to keep secrets, since some of their secrets may be much more important? Aren’t we glad that Nixon taped himself? Wouldn’t tapes of Clinton have told us much more valuable things than who rubbed their knees on his carpet? Wouldn’t a video of Dick Cheney’s energy meetings, or even of those entering and leaving the meetings, make interesting viewing?

If a misinterpreted identification results in your being falsely accused of a crime, will it not be helpful to have more of your life on record? If you conduct your life well, records of it amount to character witnesses. And many are the falsely convicted now rotting in U.S. prisons who think repeatedly, “If only it had all been videotaped, I wouldn’t be here.” Many investigations into police brutality are initiated these days because of privately filmed videos.

Big Everyone is not the same as Big Brother and can even be used to hold Big Brother accountable. What if we had video of George W. Bush’s “national guard service”? His reference to a columnist as an “asshole,” like John Kerry’s reference to Bush as “crooked,” revealed something useful to us. There are only a few of those in power “surveilling” us, but many of us together surveilling those in power. We can create greater accountability. We can indeed “turn the tables.” When Donald Rumsfeld recently lied about his pre-war lies, he was immediately confronted with what he had said. The value of that far outweighs any imaginary discomfort I might feel in having to list on a census form how many bathrooms my house has – a concern expressed by many Americans four years ago.

My point is that there is another side to this story, and that we should work to develop it. I don’t want us forced to be always observed. I don’t want public cameras in my house any more than most other people do. (Some obviously prefer to have them.) I enjoy time alone out of the gaze of others. I’d rather not have right wing goons make fun of nicknames I call my pets, and I’d prefer not to have the FBI go after me with false charges because they know I went to a peace demonstration. I also do not argue that the development of cyborg and portable computer technologies and surveillance techniques is inevitable or that it is “part of what it means to be human” (an argument used in “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution,” by Howard Rheingold).

But I think that we should direct our healthy Luddism toward weapons and GMOs. I think we should stop worrying about knowledge in and of itself, stop feeling violated by disinterested gazes, and start building democratic systems of mass communication in which the masses are doing the communicating. We should be neither exhibitionists nor hermits. We should use new communications technologies to develop our social interaction and our democratic power. We should not let what happened to television and radio and newspapers happen to the Internet. If we do, I will be scared.

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