Many of us are horrified by the idea that what we read, what substances (even legal ones) we ingest, who might enter our bedrooms from time to time (even in the most non-sexual circumstances), what odd hobbies we might have ... and on and on ... might be increasingly knowable by our governments, our police forces, or even our neighbours. If we feel that horror, we may be glad of the big-city anonymity that allows us much greater control of how much these things are known about us, and by whom, than was ever possible in small communities. We may want to fight new methods by which governments obtain practical power to snoop on us, collate information, create profiles of our tastes, activities, and thoughts. Even if we trust our current governments - but let's face it, who does? - what about some future government that has a more aggressive agenda of monitoring and controlling its citizens?
This should make it a no-brainer to oppose new kinds of surveillance. But here's the rub. Whether we like it or not, there's a significant possibility that near-future technological advances will increasingly place destructive power in the hands even of small groups of people, even small groups whose members are not immensely rich. If that's the way it turns out, this will intensify the current pressures for more and more surveillance and monitoring of citizens.
I don't especially like this, and I'm not necessarily going to accept it without resistance.
However, whether we accept surveillance creep or not, we can try to agree on one important point. As time goes on, we need more than procedural safeguards against the rising panopticon. Even more important is the need for a society of increased tolerance.
If higher levels of surveillance are likely, perhaps irresistible in the longer term, it is all the more reason to press for a social and legal ethos of far greater tolerance of activities that are not significantly harmful.
This entails a shift in values, away from moralism and paternalism to a more narrowly-focused concern with secular harm to others, especially with harmful actions that might cause destruction on a large scale. Arguably, that kind of shift was taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has not continued evenly since. To some extent, it has actually been reversed. A great deal of sententious moralism has been creeping back into public policy and the law.
With that in mind, we need a transvaluation of values, though not of the sort that Nietzsche demanded. We need to become more tolerant of differences over relatively harmless things and more focused on possibilities of great harm. This should involve scepticism about moral panics and the kneejerk legislation that often results.
So let's have no more laws against well-known social drugs, reproductive or therapeutic cloning, "sodomy", images of scantily-clad people, collecting antiques ... or whatever the latest moral bugbear might be. Let's make absolutely sure that any new forms of surveillance or monitoring that do get developed - perhaps over our vehement protests - are not abused by being used collaterally to catch people for unimportant things. Where such laws exist, let's roll them back.
Surely we can all agree on a simple message: Western societies must stop worrying disproportionally about minor risks and problems, while refocusing on the identification of major risks (involving large-scale destruction) and on what to do about them.
This link is not often made in the press and other media, but it ought to be. The point is true, important, and becoming more and more timely.