Social networks and the great cosmopolitan adventure

If my memory is not failing, at the year that came out the movie “The Social Network”, about two law suits founder Mark Zuckerberg has faced concerning the circumstances under which Facebook was created, the Time magazine had the youngest billionaire in the world elected Person of the Year (yep, I was right – my memory is not failing me). While on the big screen, the guy is portrayed as an unethical and tactless genius-but-jerk who steals ideas and actual money from his closest friends, the paper redeems him and turns him into the person who brought the world together and saved internet from the nameless perverts that thrived in the anonymity of the web.

Although I do find I am absolutely not capable of passing judgment on Mr. Zuckerberg’s character or lack thereof — I have not met the guy or done any research on him — I can say I find social networks a sort of Bentham’s Panopticon, a new take on surveillance upon which everyone embarks with a smile because, well, it’s fun. The Panopticon was conceived by philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century as an allegory of the perfect prison: a completely see through building, where inmates cannot see if they are or not being observed. Without knowing if there is anyone actually watching at any given moment, each person strives to behave according to rules at all times. Apparently, the folks at Time magazine are huge fans of the idea.

The clever difference between the Panopticon and Facebook — or any other social network that should currently be in fashion, such as Google’s Orkut used to be, or twitter also is in its own different way — is that joining the thing is a completely voluntary choice, related only to reward: getting to know other people, sharing a lot of stuff, having constant feedback from your friends and mostly, showing off. Yep, showing off. Things you would never do in person, you do there. Sharing your art with every single person you know: your drawings, your photographs — including portraits of yourself, tapping your inner model — your skills as a musician. Sharing your happiness with your ex-boyfriends, telling the world you have such unique skills and interests, and also that even your daily routine is so special: would you take time to invite your boss to grab a bite and show him the pictures of your mother’s 63rd birthday celebration? Well, if you make them public in your profile, chief may see them all. What about travel? You haven’t really gone anywhere if you didn’t post any news from your adventures. Well, what’s the problem? I’m not doing anything wrong.

No, you’re not. And that’s the entire point — you’re not doing anything wrong, are you? So why can’t you share it? Why can’t we watch it?

Somehow, I see Bentham’s Panopticon and Kant’s Categorical Imperative as ideas that somewhat relate. If Bentham’s concept was self-surveillance forced by the publicity of acts, Kant turns publicity into a voluntary test on your own ethics: if your motivation for your action is not compatible with it being made public, what your are doing is wrong. This maxim supports his entire work, upon which international and legal order find ample justification until our days. His project of cosmopolitanism was based upon the exchange of hospitality for trade and truth; the problem that comes with that is to discover what the truth is when reality is subjective: what tells a border control officer that one person is a potential illegal immigrant and should not be allowed to enter a country? How many questions — and which ones — must he ask until he feels he knows enough to send back a person who has spent maybe thousands of dollars on a plane ticket? How many tweets will ensure that the 14 years old girl from your brother’s class in high school did actually offer herself to most of her male classmates? Or perhaps the number of Likes her justification will get might redeem her reputation.

Well, if Kant did not invent sovereign borders, he did contribute immensely to how they were legally shaped, and now that society has transposed its existence to a virtual, global environment, the Categorical Imperative is all the rage. Transparency, the liberal obsession, is catching us all by transmuting into displays of uniqueness and promises of recognition. As we dive into the paradise of surveillance, offering and being offered tantalizing amounts of personal information, we give into the temptation of judging without recalling our own publicity comes with judgment as well; and as we project our own opinions into others by telling ourselves, “I’m not doing nothing wrong — so why can’t I share it?”, we — maybe dangerously — forget that we are, indeed, unique.


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