Transparency and atavistic instincts: “To see and not be seen”

Posted on December 8, 2010 by

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CableGate puts into sharper focus the modern relevance of one of the oldest survival principles in nature “to see and not be seen”. Today, based on an informal  “Internet social contract”, the deal is that we “see” much more, but we also accept being “seen” more than ever before. This tacit Internet deal is under a lot of pressure. We are increasingly “seen” beyond what is proportional, starting from literal body scans at the airports to much more sophisticated profiling of our habits by big Internet companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google.  Every click we make reveals insights into our habits and priorities.

CableGate may be a watershed in this respect because it did a “body scan” of the diplomatic service, an institution that is based on the principle of “see/don’t be seen”. It has brought to an extreme the discussions about  the Internet as a medium for both good and bad. The “Internet social contract” will inevitably be re-visited. In this discussion we should keep in mind some deeper determinants which go beyond the Internet, technology and our time…. The game “hide and seek” is still very popular among kids.  It is a game as old as nature, a competition between predator and prey. Plants and animals optimize their camouflage and increase their chances for surviva. Humans are no different. Since we started wandering on the steppes of the Serengeti, the key to survival has been to see the prey, and not be seen by predators, and with the development of civilization later on, by other humans. Military history is, to a large extent, the history of camouflage and deception.

These thousands years of our collective memory are deeply coded in human society. They should not be discarded by the excitement of the here and now. As usual, chrono-narcissism is dangerous. Deeper instincts and habits cannot be suppressed. Like water, atavistic instincts always find their way to the surface and surprise us.  They usually win against noble ideas and we are left worse off. This is one of the clear lessons of history. Can we learn from it? How can a new Internet social contract establish balance among principles such as transparency, openness, privacy and security, to name a few?

Posted in: diplomacy