Q+A: Can we still be private in public in a panoptic city?

Aug 8 • Cityscape, Q+A • 2151 Views • 20 Comments on Q+A: Can we still be private in public in a panoptic city?



Three individuals, from different professional backgrounds, and from different parts of the globe, give answers to our question of the week. 


B.J. Murphy is a Transhumanist and Philosopher of Science and Technology. I’m a writer for the non-profit organizations Institute for Ethics and Emerging TechnologiesTranshumanity.net, and India Future Society, and I currently run my own blog called The Proactionary Transhumanist:


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.


Eleonora Cugurullo  is an Italian architect with a MSc in sustainable design from the University of Edinburgh. Since her graduation she blogs at The Green Pilgrim about her critical thoughts related to all types of architecture:


Contemporary society is strongly influenced by the use of technology: with the advent of social networks and smart phones, we all have a different concept of privacy respect to ten years ago. I think that at the actual level of technology, being private in public is still possible. Furthermore I believe it is in our power to shelter our privacy, for example by using social networks to the minimum. Especially in a big metropolis, where there is a larger number of CCTV cameras, it is impossible to monitored everyone’s life without a precise reason. And if this reason exists, it is probably for the common safety. It is of course scary imagining a world where we are constantly watched and our privacy violated, like in some popular dystopian fictions, but at the current state of things we can be as free as our good sense would allowed us.


 Lee Calisti is an architect and adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture. www.leecalisti.com:


As with most words in our postmodern culture, the terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ can take on differing degrees of meaning. It may seem impossible to find privacy today when there are people everywhere and we can be connected electronically to all parts of the globe. It isn’t easy to answer in so few words. One could argue that even if you’re trying to sit alone sharing privately on your iPhone, privacy can be breached with electronic hackers. If my thinking was fatalistic I’d quickly answer no.


However, I believe the answer is yes if we redefine of terms or shift our frame of reference. We may have to return to old style communication methods, dump our electronics and tune out the rest of the world to gain this privacy. For instance, I can sit in a public square with my wife, focus my eyes on only her and simply talk with each other. It is quite possible that those around would be so focused on their own Twitter account or searching for a gelato somewhere that they wouldn’t even notice us. Is it the same as being alone at home, no? Behavior choices must adapt to the degree of privacy.


So what do you think?

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


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20 Responses to Q+A: Can we still be private in public in a panoptic city?

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  13. Lee, we can always been seen, tracked, followed and even directed. The more connected in terms of convenience a city is, the more connected the security.

  14. My initial response was to agree with B.J., but I took a slightly different point of view. It’s very interesting to hear the responses and quite a good thought to ponder.

  15. B.J. Murphy says:

    Well I’m sure they’ll notice us, but paying attention to what we do is questionable, yes. Does that then mean our privacy isn’t being diminished? I still feel that it is, only we’re not that upset about it (or at all, really) is because, as I theorize, it isn’t so much our privacy we’re concerned of, but rather more so our private lives being disrupted.

    If someone saw what I did with my private life, I could care less. But if someone, somehow, became a somewhat barrier to said private life, or became a nuisance to it, I’d find that much more displeasing than the simple act of know what I do in “privacy”.

  16. I really liked your intervention! 🙂 I think pretty much the same, but the reason why I believe there is still privacy it’s because maybe our image is gonna be captured by many cameras, but at the same time nobody is really watching us..

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. B.J. Murphy says:

    Thank you for reaching out and having this published. I look forward in seeing more outlooks on different questions next week.

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