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In his first city, cameras were on every vantage point. Only the authorities could access them. Crime fell, but the city's inhabitants knew that the police could monitor their behaviour and record their arguments against the status quo.

Brin's second city looked much like the first. It, too, had cameras on every vantage point. All citizens could access them via devices on their wristwatches, however. (He could not predict the sophistication of the modern mobile phone.) A woman walking home could check that no one was lurking behind a corner. A man late for a date could check if his girlfriend was still waiting for him. When the police arrest a suspect they do so with meticulous attention to his rights because they know that unknown eyes might be monitoring them.

The conceit of our age is that we live in Brin's information-sharing city – an understandable conceit because in many respects we do. I do not need to go through the thousands of ways in which new contacts and reserves of information have opened up. Given the speed of change, I am not surprised that the utopianism of the 1990s is still with us. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer said recently that the web was allowing a modern version of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Like Bentham, Singer is a utilitarian. He thus saw nothing sinister in Bentham's vision of a prison where a few guards could see all the cells from a watchtower at the centre of a circular jail. Rather, he welcomed the constant monitoring proliferation of cameras, webcams, mobiles and data collection allowed. I am still shocked by the speed with which the British, a people once renowned for their reserve, allowed their country to become home to more CCTV cameras per square mile than anywhere else in the free world.

Singer sees the cameras as grounds for hope. Surveillance may make us more "honest and transparent", as we realise that our lies could be exposed, he said. It could make us more altruistic as the public charity of others shames us into giving. The authorities may act to a higher standard too. They would know that whistle-blowers could give their shady secrets to Wikileaks, hand them to the press or post them online, and adjust their conduct accordingly. Others can find out more about us, but we can find out more about them. That's the deal for the 21st century. Like so many others, Singer would have done better to remember the authoritarian possibilities of the internet and recall that Bentham's first concern was to cut prison governors' staffing costs.

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Philip Arlington
July 25th, 2012
1:07 AM
MazulUK, you should feel safe at the airport because it is a demonstrable fact that the number of terrorist attacks is miniscule in relation to the number of flights. Hysterical over reaction to non-threats by the authorities will only make you feel less safe. In one sense that is its function. They need fake stories about danger to compensate for the lack of actual attacks, or more people might wake up and start questioning the over the top security that makes profits for many and allows other to act out their authoritarian instincts.

Chris Ashton
July 19th, 2012
7:07 AM
The government is not really interested in aviation security. If their were, they would be spending their time know...aviation security. As it stands they prefer to make silly arrests, charge people with silly arrests, and frig about looking for nail clippers and tweezers, while issuing free passes to all manner of islamists, lest they be accused of racism.

Brekfast Newz
July 5th, 2012
12:07 PM
Re: "His inquiry was meant to be into systematic criminality by journalists." Not so. His enquiry (first part) was meant to be into the "culture, practices and ethics" of the media. The question was not just "who broke the law" but if and how a culture could have evolved within the media to allow such practices to become commonplace. Specifically, a culture of arrogance amongst the most powerful, least accountable political voices in Britain (as, perhaps until recently, the old-style 'titles' were). The fact that the stable door is now swinging on its hinges may make this point moot, but just because this inquiry is long overdue does not mean it is not widely welcomed. I do agree that its findings will only practically concern a traditional media that faces an uncertain future, and Leveson is out-of-touch and powerless in respect of the wider 21st century issues you raise. But it's not as though print media barely exists in 2012, and that the old regulated titles no longer have influence. Dacre, Murdoch, even Desmond still have huge capacities to promote their private interests in the name of 'freedom of speech'. So long as there are a few horses in the paddock, it's right and proper that we fix the stable door.

July 2nd, 2012
9:07 AM
"Airport security is an extremely sensitive matter " Then it needs pursuing more competently than it has been here.

The Slog
July 1st, 2012
6:07 AM
An excellent piece. I think we got here via a national obsession with fame and an addiction to ill-judged emotional incontinence. But as a serious (hopefully) internet writer, the biggest problem with internet news is the volume of it (= easier to tell a lie and move on) plus the paucity of analysis (now-now-now, not 'why?'). Cameras will be watching us all deafacate in the end, so that the H&SE can check we're doing it properly. And still people won't mind. Ignorannce and insouciance are a powerful narcotic.

June 30th, 2012
5:06 PM
Sorry, Nick, this time I must disagree with you. Airport security is an extremely sensitive matter (I fly around 40,000 miles a year and I need to feel safe. Many countries impose strict penalties for behaviour like this - the Philippines and Singapore, to name just two. Ever since 9/11, the Glasgow airport attempted atrocity and various other Islamist atrocities all over the world, it has been essential for all threats to be taken seriously. Please reconsider your position on this one.

Dr Brian Robinson
June 27th, 2012
5:06 PM
Absolutely right Nick. It's truly no less than terrifying. How did we get to this? But more to the point, what can we do about it?

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