Can we still be private in public in a panoptic city?

A couple of weeks ago I was reached out by sixty7 Architecture Road, an online Canadian architecture organization. I was asked the very question as titled here, to which I then gave them a response. They provide weekly questionnaires to several different people of various professional backgrounds. This week was on whether or not privacy could still be attained in a public panoptic city – meaning a city in which cameras are to be found everywhere. My response is re-published below: 

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To be completely honest about it – no, we cannot. The idea of privacy in public environments is completely contradictory to the entire psyche and culture developed around said environments. Going out in public is to temporarily abandon your individual interests and secrets and to replace it (again, temporarily) for a more open, public venue. And despite how Orwellian that may sound, we’ve been doing this for many years now and haven’t been negatively affected by it in the least.

Understand though that I’m completely aware that today’s public environment is much different than, say, our public environment 20 years ago. In just two decades we’ve reached a point where it’s impossible to go throughout your day without being seen in someone’s digital camera, captured in a random snapshot, noticed by security guards using one of their IP cameras in local businesses, etc. 20 years ago cameras were set up every few blocks, maybe in some trains and buses, but never to the extent in which cameras are visible today – street corners, trains and buses, traffic lights, stores, laptops, cell phones, etc. etc. etc. With a few clicks on a keyboard you can access thousands of cameras around the world via a simple search query on Google. And guess what? That’s the norm of society today. More and more stores use IP cameras, more cameras are popping up on street corners and rooftops, the cell phone industry is booming, and even our private vehicles have cameras for our personal use to dodge blind spots.

Are we infringing on someone’s personal privacy in their own vehicle by using those cameras? Technically, yes. But then everyone’s privacy is being infringed in public society. That’s the very essence of public society. We let go of hiding in the dark and embrace the future by acting more collectively – like a society of people who have nothing to hide. With Google Glass devices now reaching the hands of developers, with a likely market launch next year, we’ll be adding in millions of more cameras into public society – ones in which we’ll wear as spectacles.

To think that privacy will not then be infringed in public society is asinine. Then again, privacy in a public society has become an irrelevancy. I’ll be the first to admit that I care less about my privacy, and more about our social programs to ensure a stable – and yes, open – society. We live in a technological world now. This is no longer the industrial age; this is the informational age. A brave new world; a world that calls for your bravery by stepping out of the shadows and into the light – by camera flashes, that is.

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