Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

It's easy to invent a dystopian future — just take the worst aspects of the world around you, and ugly them up. But what about dreaming of a better world, or even a perfect society? Some of the noblest science fiction writers and futurists have imagined a future utopia, in which all of our problems have been solved and people can live up to their full potential.

There's just one catch: In many of these utopias, you have to give up some or all of your privacy. Why does an ideal society often seem to involve people knowing what you're doing — or what you're thinking?

Top image: Metropolis 2106 by THMC on Deviant Art.

There's something terribly comforting about the idea of a benevolent society seeing you, in all your messed-up weirdness, and approving. On the small scale, there are lots of stories about individuals who are telepathically linked to one person, or to a collective, and who feel happy because they're never lonely. Likewise, a lot of our fantasies about being mentally linked to a computer involve the notion of being understood — really, properly, understood — and accepted. Think of the rapture with which Jenna says "It's like being... totally known," after she's been psychically scanned by Zen in Blake's 7.

And as much as dystopias are built on surveillance, it's the horrible consequences of that surveillance that make it dystopian, as far as most of us are concerned. A dystopian government doesn't spy on its citizens to deliver flowers to them on their birthday, but to round them up and torture them when they step over a line. Or look at it another way — if you read a novel set in a dystopian future where the government spied on its citizens, and then never did anything with the information, you'd complain that it was an insufficiently dark or dystopian future, and you wouldn't understand quite why the hero was so keen on rebellion. Most of us have at least some notion that there's a dystopian use of surveillance — so maybe there's a utopian use for it as well?

Plus, of course, there's the notion that we only need privacy because we live in such a terrible society. If only we lived in a society with less oppression and mistreatment, none of us would ever need to hide anything.

And finally, there's just the question of what makes someplace utopian — is it simply the things the society doesn't do, like let people starve, or torture its citizens? Or is there something you expect a utopian society to do for people, like help them reach their full potential in some way? (Obviously to some extent, this is a political question. A Libertarian utopia will look different than a Socialist utopia.) To the extent that a utopia does stuff to nurture its citizens, it has to know a lot about them — which could have an infantilizing effect that's equal parts comforting and creepy.

So here's a brief rundown of some utopias, from fiction and futurism, where a great society is one with less privacy:

1. The science-as-religion utopia of Saint-Simon

A French nobleman, philosopher, and all around provocateur, Henri de Saint-Simon imagined a utopian world across several obscure volumes: Du Système Industriel (1821), Catéchisme des Industriels (1823), and Nouveau Chrstianisme (1825)) run by scientist-priests who allocated labor and power, according to their areas of expertise.

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

Saint-Simon died in 1825. But an eager group of followers, including philosopher Auguste Comte, mystic-cum-railway director Barthelemy Enfantin, banker Jacques Lafitte, and scientist Nicolas Carnot, turned Saint-Simon's teachings into a full-on movement — and later, an experimental commune. (The commune itself failed quite spectacularly and was eventually outlawed in Paris.) As the movement progressively became weirder and more mystical, its adherents adopted wholesale many of the practices of Catholicism, including confession, marriage, and other sacraments — minus any worship of any God.

Saint-Simonians in particular saw the regular act of confession as essential to communal living. A shared community needed to have no secrets or privacy, or things would fall apart. Except that this totally backfired when people confessed secrets (usually about who was sleeping with whom) and then they made it out into the open — breaking the already fragile solidarity of the commune. While the "collective living" part didn't work out, many of their other schemes totally did — including the Suez Canal, the Statue of Liberty, a French network of railroads financed through private capital, and so on.

2. H.G. Wells', A Modern Utopia (1905)

Wells' account of a dynamic modern utopia is an earnest attempt at synthesizing the utopian literature of his time into a vision for a working world state, run by a technocratic elite of "Samurai". And in chapter two, Wells talks about what personal freedoms would remain in a modern utopia. He argues that the innate "gregarious instinct is sufficiently powerful to render any but the most temporary isolations not simply disagreeable, but painful." And Wells makes the case that personal privacy, as a relatively recent modern invention, will soon disappear under conditions of utopia: " Our present need for privacy in many things marks, indeed, a phase of transition from an ease in public in the past due to homogeneity, to an ease in public in the future, due to intelligence and good breeding, and in Utopia that transition will be complete."

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

For those who absolutely crave some private respite within their own homes, Wells imagines a situation where future utopians will simply pay for the right to privacy:

Privacy beyond the house might be made a privilege to be paid for in proportion to the area occupied, and the tax on these licences of privacy might increase as the square of the area affected. A maximum fraction of private enclosure for each urban and suburban square mile could be fixed. A distinction could be drawn between an absolutely private garden and a garden private and closed only for a day or a couple of days a week, and at other times open to the well-behaved public.

Let's leave aside the question of how and why money would still be meaningful in a modern utopia…

Also, Wells quotes from the original Utopia by Thomas More. "Whoso will may go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or anie man's owne."

3. de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man (1955)

Notable for popularizing the idea of massive psychic convergence into a single super-human entity a la Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), de Chardin's account of humanity's transcendence surprisingly spends little time addressing life after super-consciousness, and what would happen to privacy. Confusingly, de Chardin imagines the future super-person after the Omega Point as both a unity and an individual personality: "By its structure Omega, in its ultimate principle, can only be a distinct Centre radiating at the core of a system of centres; a grouping in which personalisation of the All and personalisations of the elements reach their maximum, simultaneously and without merging under the influence of a supremely autonomous focus of union". All of which is a nice way of saying that de Chardin wanted to have his cake and eat it too, when it came to resolving the tension between individuals and the collective, after psychic convergence.

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

And prior to the Omega Point, de Chardin imagines how the extension of artifice, science, and human progress will turn out to have made this mental convergence possible:

Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motorcar and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the Earth.

Such network imagery is now commonplace, but prefigures much of the subsequent global village rhetoric of the Internet (no wonder, early Internet pioneers like Stewart Brand were big fans of the book).

4. Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956)

Clarke's famous retelling of Against the Fall of Night goes more into depth about the two last cities/utopias left on Earth: the urban Diaspar and the more pastoral Lys. In Diaspar, a massive central computer essentially takes care of all the basic needs of its citizens, while also serving as the final repository/broker for all knowledge (in Against the Fall of Night, the central computer character is just a hall of records and a librarian).

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

By contrast, Lys is a community full of telepaths, who have mostly forsaken automated machines and computers, so they can hone their collective mental abilities. The two cities operate in almost total ignorance of each other, which makes the Diasparan main character Alvin's first encounter with a Lyssian telepath awkward:

"This is an occasion which does not often arise, so you will excuse me if I do not know the correct behavior. But there are certain rights due to a guest, even if an unexpected one. Before we talk, there is something about which I should warn you. I can read your mind."

She smiled at Alvin's obvious consternation, and added quickly: "There is no need to let that worry you. No right is respected more strongly than that of mental privacy. I will enter your mind only if you invite me to. But it would not be fair to hide this fact from you, and it explains why we find speech somewhat slow and difficult. It is not often used here".

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

Similarly, when the Lyssian protagonist Hilvar ventures to Diaspar, he notes how the crowded urban environment provides little in the way of private personal space:

Within a few days of arriving in Diaspar, Hilvar had met more people than in his entire life. Met them and had grown to know practically none. Because they were so crowded together, the inhabitants of the city maintained a reserve that was hard to penetrate. The only privacy they knew was that of the mind and they still clung to this even as they made their way through the endless social activities of Diaspar. Hilvar felt sorry for them though he knew that they felt no need for his sympathy. They did not realize what they were missing-they could not understand the warm sense of community, the feeling of belonging which linked everyone together in the telepathic society of Lys…

5. TCP/IP and the Internet (1970s-1980s)

If you believe that the early Internet had utopian aspirations, then its relationship to privacy is interesting to consider. Embedded in series of on-going technical protocols, early Internet users on ARPANET and associated networks imagined a world in which privacy took a backseat to open access. While somewhat antithetical to present-day notions, the easy-going academic context made openness a virtue to be preserved. Reflecting this, not only was every packet sent over the network stamped with an individual address (the IP), but also most networks allowed any and every user access to basic file directories. You see the same appeal to openness (and limited privacy) with many open source licenses and communities today.

6. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

This is probably the most popular utopia in mainstream media — and it's fascinating how much the crew of the Enterprise can snoop on each other. In particular, the computer tracks your location on the ship (via your com badge) and can tell anyone where you are, at any given time. It's also not clear just how private people's personal logs are, since we see them being accessed by other people at various times. (And in that one episode, La Forge is able to create a holographic duplicate of his physicist crush object, partly by accessing her logs and stuff.) Even leaving aside the fact that the Enterprise has an empath who reads people's emotional states — and this is usually viewed as a useful, good thing — there's still a lot to be concerned about here. Of course, it is a military vessel, so maybe the civilian part of the Federation has more concern for privacy.

7. The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks (1987-present)

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

One of the most famous quasi-utopias in literature, the Culture includes Minds, super-powerful artificial intelligences, as well as space-traveling post-human agents. And a big feature of the Culture is that at any time, someone could dip into your head and see what's going on with you. From second to second, you could have a fair degree of privacy — but you have to know that your thoughts could be accessed without warning. As Banks explains in an essay on the Culture, having shared knowledge and expertise is crucial to the fabric of this future society:

All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows; anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done within or by any GSV. In terms of both information and technology, they represent a last resort, and act like holographic fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.

8. The Transparent Society by David Brin (1998)

In this highly influential book, Brin argues that the right to privacy is a contingent right, which is subordinate to our needs to "know and speak." He sees a world full of radical transparency as a good thing — as we described it a few years ago:

Brin's idea is that in a society with less privacy, we lose the deadly secrecy that once allowed powerful people to victimize the less powerful... the technologies of surveillance from CCTV to Facebook will shine light equally on the powerful and powerless alike.

As Brin elaborated in an essay in the Silicon Valley Metro, a new open society could counter surveillance with "sousveillance":

Never before have so many people been empowered with practical tools of transparency. Beyond access to instantly searchable information from around the world, nearly all of us now carry in our pockets a device that can take still photographs and video, then transmit the images anywhere. Will the growing power of elites to peer down at us-surveillance-ultimately be trumped by a rapidly augmenting ability of citizens to look back at those in power-or "sousveillance"?

9. The Singularity (1993-present)

Would You Give Up Your Privacy to Live in Utopia?

This vision of a world transformed by artificial intelligence — created by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil among others — includes the notion that humans will interface with computers directly, creating a superhuman level of intelligence. And quite often, visions of the world after the Singularity are similar to the world after de Chardin's Omega Point — we'll be connected to each other in a fundamental way. And in many visions of a post-Singularity world, this includes knowing each other's thoughts, or sharing ideas.

One particularly interesting version of a post-Singularity world, from a privacy standpoint, is Rudy Rucker's Postsingular, in which everybody can watch everybody else at all times, thanks to omnipresent sprites. The whole notion of privacy becomes a thing of the past, and many people attempt to sell advertising on the non-stop "broadcast" of their lives.