Friday, 18 February 2011


Every so often, when I'm in London, I visit University College to remind myself about the future of privacy. I go there to visit the tomb of the utilitarian social reformer Jeremy Bentham, a glass-and-wood mausoleum he dubbed his "AutoIcon", from which the philosopher's waxy corpse has been watching over us for the last 150 years. It was Bentham, you see, who, in 1787, at the dawn of the industrial age, designed what he called a "simple idea in architecture" to improve the management of social institutions, from prisons and asylums to workhouses and schools. Bentham imagined a physical network of small rooms in which we would be inspected "every instant of time". He named a tract after his idea, calling it, without irony, Panopticon; or, the Inspection House. Bentham's goal was the elimination of mystery and privacy. Everything, for this utilitarian inventor of the greatest-happiness principle, would become shared and thus social. In Bentham's perfectly efficient and transparent world, there would be nowhere for anyone to hide...

...No wonder, either, that, as the American journalist Katie Roiphe has observed, "Facebook is the novel we are all writing." We are becoming WikiLeakers of our own lives. There has been a massive increase in what Shirky calls "self-produced" legibility. This contemporary mania with self-expression is what two leading American psychologists, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, have described as "the narcissism epidemic" -- a self-promotional madness driven, they say, by our need to broadcast our uniqueness to the world....

from Wired, via A&L

The writer Andrew Keen's idea is of a Facebook-powered dystopia in which no one has a private life any more. I am not entirely convinced by this as I have failed to be convinced by any of the dystopian / utopian visions in my lifetime, articles that said: In ten years time we'll all be doing x or y.

I suspect we are dealing with illusions of social existence and self-expression. I suspect we are becoming ever more private, in that internet presentation and fantasy are the public acts of people sitting alone at desks.

That's fine most of the time. I like my desk. It is a peculiar panopticon of the mind: everything is private there and nothing is. All things are a flowing, / Sage Heracleitus says. I don't know whether it is a tawdry cheapness that shall outlast our days, as Pound thought. None of us is cheap. It is simply another dimension into which human existence has flowed and goes on flowing. And we flow there alone as we have always done, watching other flow while the tide swirls this way and that.


Office Bags said...
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Anonymous said...

I am reading Deepak Chopra SynchroDestiny- my vote is still out but I suspect he is leading people by the nose through their own tunnel of greed and narcissism to a state of greater generosity towards others. He suggests that everything exists at first in the virtual and we think it into reality. Consider the virtual reality you have created through this blog and website... is it a democracy? Are you being generous towards others in what you write and the information you provide, what is the balance towards self-promotion and the genuine act of giving? You will find it falls in your favour.

George S said...

I am not sure whether democracy is an appropriate term. In so far as I write it, this website is like a house. I keep out very few people and try to have a conversation with some. Let people come and go. I rather like it that way. Keeping the blog makes me think about things - indeed to work out what I really might think about things - and to write as clearly as I can, which is a good thing as far as I am concerned. I hope it might give pleasure to others in a way not dissimilar to the way my books or prose pieces might do.

I don't feel evangelistic about it. I don't go about with the sense that I am 'giving' something to anyone. I don't have a message for the world. I have my manners which are not generally those of Ted Hughes's hawk, ie the tearing off of heads. I don't tend to speak ill of people unless they are powerful and harmful in my view. Such people are beyond my personal ambit. Occasionally I may rage against them to no particular effect. Raging is not, however, one of my key modes.

As to self-promotion, that is an interesting question. You clearly mean in ways that my books are not self-promotion. Hard to tell really. It's not a particularly efficient form of self-promotion considering the work it takes and the books it might or might not sell. I don't advertise my wares on the blog as such, except in the sidebar, though I do sometimes refer to things I have written. It is in that sense, I suppose, an advertisement for my wares and views, such as they are. But, as I say, half the time I myself am in the process of discovering my views. I can tell you that I have discovered a great deal by writing here.

Of my correspondents I have met three or four, that is all. I have been pleased to meet the others in virtual terms, and should the opportunity arise to meet them in person I would be happy to do so.

The similarities to, and difference from other forms of writing are fascinating.

I suppose I am just one of those people who loves the feel of language forming itself into shapes that bear on the world in some way. And I am at my desk, all by myself. The balance between solitude and intelligent and amenable company seems to be pretty even. It is a kind of two-way panopticum. On a really good day I sometimes feel it's house by the sea with a view of the waves. Fascinating to think of ships out there. I don't expect to give out any more light than I can see. I'm certainly not a lighthouse. I just like writing.

In any case, I feel the world - both real and virtual - is potentially a more civilized and civil place than we are generally led to believe. I hope the blog is a reasonable and interesting house to enter.

Anonymous said...

OK you are comfortable to clearly lay down the rules of the virtual world you have created, the house is open but wipe your feet before you come in and be civil. The subject of giving is difficult, sometimes I wonder if it has become something embarrassing in our society- we speak much more freely and without inhibition about getting and wanting, when did that happen or was it always that way?
Dear old Deepak wants us to live by the mantra 'I let go of grievances and choose miracles' which made me howl with laughter. I suspect the miracle is not some bounteous good fortune but the ability to actually let go of the grievances in the first place. Most religions and spiritual systems think forgiveness is very important, I think I am only just starting to glimpse what it really means and perhaps how important it might be.... to future happiness and to the freedom and ability to be creative.
The blog is your sounding board. When we write something down and commit it to a more public domain, even though it once belonged to us as our very own, it detaches from us and we are able to look at it more objectively. To ultimately see ourselves more clearly, it is hard to lie in this format and perhaps this is why we become the 'wikileakers of our own lives'

East Anglian Reader said...

I am one of the people you have met and raging is, however, one of your key modes, it is just you are very good at hiding it.

Sabine said...

Your blog is a welcoming and friendly house to enter, yes. Very alive. I am quite new to it and find your exposure of quite a vaste variety of themes and ideas stimulating and not at all thought limiting. As a writer I share your love and excitement about language, how it reaches out and shapes the reality around us.
Blogs like yours are contributing to make the world a good and civil place, for my opinion. That you don't have a message for the world, makes it real and human. Thank you for sharing your daily thoughts.

Sabine Pascarelli

George S said...

Well, Liz. You must have a good rage detector considering I hide it so well. Reveal your true identity so I may rage at you in all-but-undetectable fashion.

Actually I have always considered myself the model of cool headed, anxious calm and hope the rage is more fire than fury. But who knows? People have occasionally told me my eyes are more fire than calm. Can't see it myself, but then how could I?

I am deciding whether to have my portrait by Bronzino or Rembrandt. Liz - would you suggest Soutine?

Sabine, you are very kind and very welcome. As are anon and Liz.