Monday, May 30, 2016

Transparency Good and Bad (Some Semi-Scholarly Dystopian Kvetching)



 Transparent: adjective
1. having the property of transmitting rays of light through its substance so that
bodies situated beyond or behind can be distinctly seen. [***].
4. easily seen through, recognized, or detected […]
5. manifest; obvious […] || 6. open; frank; candid […]
7. Computers. (of a process or software)
operating in such a way as to not be perceived by users.

[…N]owhere is there any license to waste time, […] to evade work —
no wine shop, no alehouse, no brothel anywhere, no opportunity
for corruption […] no secret meeting place. On the contrary,
being under the eyes of all, people are bound either to be performing
the usual labor or to be enjoying their leisure in a fashion
not without decency. — Utopia, quoted by Harold Bloom, who added the
emphasis and a note referencing Zamyatin's We and Orwell's 1984.

Secrets are Lies. / Caring Is Sharing. / Privacy Is Theft.
— Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)


            Some four centuries and more before we seriously got around to open-meetings laws in the American Republic, Sir Thomas More of emphatically unrepublican, undemocratic Tudor England imagined a Utopia where any "question affecting the general public" must be discussed by officials in public and with plenty of time for at least some of the public to observe the proceedings. Highly important matters go to an assembly of representatives — called District Controllers in modern Utopian — who go back to their Districts and explain the issues to their households before any action is taken. Relevant here: "It's a capital crime" — one of the relatively few in Utopia — "to discuss such questions anywhere except in the Council or the Assembly" (Turner trans. 74; early in Bk. 2).
            Now, death is a harsh penalty for private meetings, but Utopos the conqueror of what became Utopia, and his more democratic successors, were on the right track and instituted a highly positive form of transparency: public business done in public, with no literal or figurative walls concealing that work; only the transparent air stands between the Utopians and their officials.
            There is another side to Utopian transparency, though, as Harold Bloom recognized. The Utopians have plenty of everything they need or think to desire, plus admirable leisure time because all Utopians work: indeed, "[…] wherever you are, you always have to work," in part because there are no distractions of boozing or sex, and in larger part from social and what amounts to police pressure: there's nowhere to hide from work or Utopian norms, "no secret meeting places" and "Everyone has his eye on you" (Turner 84).
            Utopia is a total society, and in many of its aspects totalitarian. "The personal is the political" in a very literal sense there, and society claims the right to regulate all things political; so "transparency" is a figure of speech with several meanings, not all of which are good, and certainly not eutopian.
            Most citizens want to know what officials of our various governments are up to; we're less keen that those officials know what we're up to — or that our bosses know or the neighbors or the general public or, sometimes, our parents or spouses. We don't want Big Brother spying on us, or, sometimes, even "little brother": some kid with a smart phone, some punk hacker.
            Indeed, "transparency" is made literal and horrific in dystopias stressing surveillance, most especially in what is arguably the first of the great dystopian novels of the 20th century, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921/24). Zamyatin is very direct: in the One State of We, apartment buildings are made of glass: transparent glass with coverings that can be used only during regulated sexual hours (any privacy for toilet functions is less clear). In addition to the "Guardians" — the secret police — "Everyone has his eye on you," or might have his, or her, eye on you, just by looking.
            In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are the ever-present telescreens, and they are the main reason "You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." Still, however much the protagonist, Winston Smith, dismisses all powers in his world except the Though Police, we do perceive through him another potential threat: "In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a blue-bottle, and darted away […]. It was the Police Patrol snooping into people's windows" (6-7; I.1). In the 1984 film version, a helicopter snooping at Winston Smith's window makes for a powerful image of the danger of that sort of windowpane transparency.
            In the science-fictional, Pomo world of the 21st century, there is still the threat of fascistic "ethno-nationalism" of the Donald Trumpian variety, but in terms of surveillance, government action is only one threat.
            In the United States, we still have to negotiate fitting cops up with body cameras in such a way as to avoid dangerous precedents of on-the-job surveillance, plus renegotiate surveillance deals of the past and try to anticipate applying high-tech innovations in the future.
            I want cops filmed going into armed confrontations, especially armed confrontations where they might shoot young males of color. And I want some guarantee that cops don't shackle someone and put him in the back of a van with no seat belt and then take him for a deadly ride. On the other hand, I don't want cops surveilled every minute they're on duty: for practical reasons of data overload and expense, but also because of the precedent. If cops have to put up with constant surveillance, why shouldn't ___________ also? (Fill in the blank, possibly with people working at your job.)
            There is also here the sense of "transparent" as a process "operating in such a way as to not be perceived." This can refer to people getting so used to invasions of privacy that as a practical, political matter they're invisible.
            Legacies of "The War on Drugs" should come to mind immediately here, as in your Little-Brother employer insisting that you urinate into a cup for testing to ensure you're not zonked on the job. Well, if you're zonked on the job and some supervisor doesn't notice, there's a problem right there, to say nothing of the problem of people having to work at jobs so mindless they can be done while zonked. Or when the doctrine of "Extraordinary measures to meet extraordinary dangers" justifies checkpoints at airports and such — and then the results of extraordinary searches (as in examining everybody's luggage) are used to arrest and prosecute such ordinary criminals as drug smugglers.
            "Do you want to fly next to drug smugglers or a murderer?!" Actually, yeah, probably; there's a good chance they'll remain sober and quiet and not draw attention to themselves. And looking just for weapons and explosives and ignoring a couple kilos of whatever should speed up the TSA lines.
            For the very-near future, there's the Silicon-Valley style gentle totalitarianism warned against in Dave Eggers's The Circle. It will soon be possible to produce relatively cheaply something like "SeeChange," which the Wikipedia entry on The Circle correctly describes as "light, portable cameras that can provide real-time video with minimal efforts. Eventually, SeeChange cameras are worn all day long by politicians wishing to be 'transparent', allowing the public to see what they are seeing at all times." And if that degree of "transparency" seems extreme, check out the TV commercials and on-line ads for electronic devices allowing parents to track their teens' (or others') mobile phones, and their teens' (or others') actions: figurative "helicopter parents" replacing the helicopters of Orwell's Police Patrols.
            There may be a kind of Karmic justice in the use of mobile phones to spy on young people. Much good has come from using the cameras on smart phones to get out to the public instances of police brutality and other crimes that until recently would have gone unreported and unpunished, however much police criminality still goes unpunished. But "kids with cameras" — camera phones — and older people who should know better have contributed to making surveillance transparent in that sense of not being really perceived, not being thought about, until, not long from now, people in high-tech societies will "live, from habit that became instinct […] in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."



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Works Mentioned Without Citation or Link in Text


More, Sir Thomas. Utopia (initial publ. 1516). Trans. and introd. Paul Turner. London, UK: Penguin, 1965.


Orwell, George (pseud. for Eric Blair). Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. Rpt. 1984. New York: Signet, 1961. 
       I give citations to this edition followed by section number in Roman and subsection in Arabic 
       numerals (Signet uses Roman for both).

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