Here are some disorganized reflections of mine on the subjects of facebook, the internet, the panopticon, and the glass houses. An extension to some initial thoughts I posted on February 6th, in reaction to an article in the guardian.
The web's "transparency" has two aspects. There is the "taken" or "stolen" transparency (meaning that it grants organizations or individuals a power to spy — cf. a concept such as Foucault's panopticon prison, which is carrying the problem to a philosophical extreme). This is something that people fear. But there is also a "granted" or "given" transparency, which is fundamentally empowering, in my opinion — especially when viewed as an opportunity for those who hold power of any kind to "come clean" vis-a-vis those over whom they exercise power. Or, at a more personal level, it is the power recognized from time immemorial in the liberating nature of confession.
In terms of potential, this power of revelation/confession trumps the power to monitor (panopticon). Governments and organizations are in glass houses, now. They try to throw up barriers and blinds, but it's a losing battle, at best. There is a man in China who is in prison because some exec at Yahoo! (or group of execs, more likely — corporate ethical lapses are so often the consequence of groupthink) had an ethical lapse vis-a-vis the Chinese government, but, the truth remains… we KNOW about that man in prison. In past times, a similar man, in a similar prison, would have disappeared completely, and we'd only have known of his situation by extrapolation from the situation of others whom we'd heard about. Recall the many "disappeared" victims of past dictatorships. Such total "disappearances" are, erm, disappearing in this new internet-enabled world. Everything gets documented.
Bushcheneyian tyrants will always find ways to harrass us, and they will be assholes, regardless of the technology available. Quakers, freethinkers and resisters were blacklisted by the CIA, the FBI, not to mention King George III, long before there were internet servers. Cheney and his secretive, Nixonian ilk are a fading breed… a failing adaptation. Or is this overly hopeful?
Perhaps if I believed in such a thing as divine providence, I'd be more inclined yearn for such a divine providence to be controlling our internet infrastructure, but there's nothing divine: there's only Al Gore – a deeply flawed human at best (and Al Gore's not really controlling the internet, obviously, but he's a good proxy for the human collectivities that ARE controlling it, and he's an amusing proxy, too, since he "invented" it).
Broadly, my primary assertion is that the internet as a whole, and facebook in particular (mostly seen as a somewhat more intensely managed version of the internet as a whole), are AT WORST forces of an ethically neutral value, and AT BEST they offer the potential for radically transforming our human ethical space, mostly due to the eerie powers of grassroots transparency.
Partly, I'm thinking in terms of evolutionary psychology. Humans evolved an ethical space in which LYING and DECEPTION (including self-deception!) were easy strategies, and therefore they were (and still ARE) also quite frequent. The direction in which technology is taking us has the potential to transform the social evolutionary pressures that led that way. Perhaps I'm guilty, here, of transhumanist (q.v.) thinking – which in general I find vaguely worrying. Be that as it may.
Writers like Tom Hodgkinson worry that facebook (and the internet in general) are primarily technologies that accentuate this potential of deception, and worse, that they can even facilitate oppression. That's a very pessimistic view, and it will lead down the path toward luddism. Of course, all technologies present grave dangers: the warmongers and the kleptocrats will always be beating plowshares into swords, wherever and whenever they "need" them, and using campaigns of deception and spying to discover the weaknesses of their enemies.
My feeling is that the people who most fear the internet are the sorts of people who fear things in general, and that the people who extoll the internet are the sorts of people who extoll things in general — in other words, whether we fear the future or extoll it has more to do with our own inner selves than with aspects inherent in world-changing technologies.
There have always been future dystopians (once called millenarians, for example). There have always been pie-in-the-sky optimists regarding the future of the human condition. What's true — or reasonable — must fall somewhere in between.