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Washington Diarist: Dead of Exposure

The evidence that transparency is returning to Washington may be found not in its politics but in its architecture. Everywhere buildings are going up in glass. Many of these gleaming stacks of work spaces with nothing to hide, these translucent repudiations of secrecy, have not yet accepted their tenants, and so the first thing one notices about them is that their effect owes a great deal to their emptiness. There are not yet any fingerprints on the glass, none of the stains and scratches of tasks and goals. So far the structures hold only light. But the luminosity will soon be ruined by activity--by the pixellated and caffeinated sweatshops that most offices have become. And then the limitations of transparency, even its deceptions, will be made plain. The conceit of glass, after all, is that it makes the inside and the outside continuous--which is why, for example, the passage of a beam of light through a closed window became a symbol in medieval Christian art for miraculous insemination. No significant obstacles, no disruptions in kind. Glass also accords nicely with our suspicion of walls, which seem to represent only exclusion, than which there is no greater American sin. We like porous individuals and permeable societies. And of course glass is perfectly suited to our exhibitionistic temper, about which more in a moment. Glass buildings are so honest, so guileless, so welcoming. The people at their desks see the people in the street, the people in the street see the people at their desks: community!

But this is, I think, a hoax. For a start, the people at their desks have no time to look. What is sunshine compared to an email? And when we look at them from the street, in pellucid fellowship, what precisely do we see? They may be bcc'ing all sorts of villains, for all we know. We see them, but not really; they see us, but not really. And in the comedy of the afternoon light, when windows become mirrors, we all see only ourselves. (The story is told of a handsome writer who stood rapt before a glass wall at a beach house watching the sun disappear spectacularly over the Pacific, and then turned to his friends with a thoughtful smile and said: "Not bad for 46.") So it is worth pointing out that the relations of transparency and truth are complicated. Terrible things may be done in plain view, whereas good works may be accomplished behind a wall. The openness of an action is no warrant of its merit, which is why secrecy is often more trouble than it is worth. But secrecy must not be confused with privacy, which is a fundamental entitlement of self-fashioning beings. How we wish to present ourselves, when and where we wish to be seen, is as much a prerogative of our liberty as it is of our vanity. Walls protect as well as cover, and what they protect is personality, which is our birthright, the dissidence of idiosyncrasy, the cultivation of differences for which we do not owe anybody an explanation. To be constantly observed is to be depleted of one's autonomy. If you doubt this, visit the Bloomberg building in New York, a great crystalline temple of transparency and its uses, with its fish tanks strategically placed to soften the atmosphere of control with reminders of organic life but which remind a visitor of nothing so much as the situation of the people who toil in this mill of perfect visibility. The Bloomberg building is the Panopticon.

"It's given me a tool for exceptionally mindless, voyeuristic, puerile procrastination; crowd-sourced pesky problems like finding a new accountant; stoked my narcissism; warmed my heart with nostalgia; and created a euphoric, irrational, irresistible belief in the good in men's hearts among the most skeptical people I know--people who should know better." That is Vanessa Grigoriadis, in New York magazine, about Facebook, in another one of her fine explorations of the illusions of Internet life. Her animadversions about the Facebook ideal of the self begin with an account of the recent outrage provoked by the company's intention to use its members' content commercially. Did these innocents really expect discretion from the most formidable engine of indiscretion ever devised? Facebook is essentially a cheerful instrument of surveillance. It consists in two hundred million publicity campaigns. "I thought of my friends who had died of exposure," Nick Cave sings, "and I remembered other ones who had died from the lack of it." So it is heartening, I suppose, that some people are discovering the alienating consequences of early or excessive revelation--the dehumanization that results from "oversharing." What does it mean to know so much about someone whom you do not know at all? The problem is this. Intimacy cannot be achieved except by time. Knowledge of another individual must be gradual, or it is not knowledge at all--it is only information, which is what remains when you subtract time from knowledge. A person cannot be grasped by information. But the Internet, which reduces everything it contains to the status of information, will not tolerate any another pace. It believes above all in acceleration. And so it accelerates the experience of human encounter beyond the powers of the heart, into an impatient universe of recreational articulateness in which surfaces are advertised and trivialities are aggregated, and self-display precedes acquaintance, and strangers are "friends." It is a new kind of loneliness, defined paradoxically by the surfeit of possibility. In sum, it is a glass house, raised upon the denial that opacity is an element of dignity.

In the capital, of course, transparency is chiefly a political subject. After eight years of an administration that made reticence seem furtive and regarded privacy as a privilege only of government, some of the shutters are coming down. Not all of them, I hope: some secrets are not guilty secrets, and their disclosure would hurt good people and good plans. But the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, does not feel best in the shadows, and the president is not a murky man. The same cannot be said of the man who built the Bloomberg building. Last year the mayor of New York proposed mandatory DNA testing of anybody arrested on any charge, and even of suspects at crime scenes. And this year he declared that inquiries into the compensation of executives of companies that are receiving public money in the bailout is "snooping around in [their] private life." So do not fall for the palaces of light. Light reveals and light conceals. What is inescapable, in Washington, is the probity of brick.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier