Perfect transparency is a recurring theme in classic utopias, evoked regularly in literary works throughout the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. Examples include the crystal palace in Nicolai Chernychevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? and the glass bed with glass sheets into which André Breton yearned to slip at night in his glass house.
Today, as we record every image and sound onto inexpensive devices at leisure, then circulate them at will to the entire world, the utopia of transparency takes on even more resonance for us. We yearn to live in a glass house where everything is seen and everything is known. This ideal first appeared in the virtual sphere, with social networks and the web; it quickly brimmed over and it resurfaces everywhere today, as much in the old world of government as in the hushed climate of diplomacy, in austere law centres as in doctors’ private practices. We want to see everything and to know everything. We no longer recognise the reserved domain that would elude the demand for transparency. We banish secrecy. We wish to know everything and to show everything, or almost, for, despite this yearning, the control of personal data and individual security remain major issues for contemporary society. The unease that followed WikiLeaks’ publication of the confidential US embassy cables illustrates this current ambivalence.
In short, the virtual world and its hybridisation into geographical territories are clearly vehicles for utopias of transparency. And they are undoubtedly putting down roots on other, older ones. Nevertheless, the contemporary utopia that is developing before our very eyes should not be confused with those that previously existed.
Let’s not forget that traditional utopias, as described for example by Thomas More in his famous novel Utopia, are constructed from an ideal of social perfection, without necessarily achieving it. Albeit on the verge of a possible world, these perfect societies were found on Earth, in an imaginary but tangible territory, inhabited by individuals similar to us in every regard. We should add that these places adopted a closed topology like that of islands, of the periphery of a lake or oasis, or even of towns, provided that that these opened out in circles, as equal distance between all appeared to be a condition of equality.
While responding to this utopian ideal of perfect transparency, the contemporary virtual sphere does not uniquely reside in the realm of possible scenarios. It exists; it governs society; it makes its presence felt to all in the contemporary world; and, through it, everyone is at an equal distance from everyone else. In this respect, it is not merely a pipe dream sketched out. It develops effectively and it shapes society in its image.
What is more, unlike the majority of utopias, it is not based in the ordinary, material world but in a second world, qualified as “virtual”. Finally, it does not demand a closed, isolated place in which one would live in autarchy; on the contrary, it flourishes in an open place to which everyone has immediate access.
All in all, whereas classic utopias were accommodated by fictitious countries similar to those known to us, contemporary utopias exist in a tangible manner but are anchored to the virtual universe of networks and to its hybridisation through other physical phenomena, all these things that differ singularly from the wold in which we previously lived. Thus, quite paradoxically, where the traditional utopia referred to the imagined real, the infosphere and cyberspace of today appear to be the base for utopias effectively developed in the virtual world of networks.