April 30, 2013

Paradox of the Panoptic

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment...you had to live in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised."

- George Orwell, 1984

In 1787, Jeremy and Samuel Bentham came up with an idea of a circular prison with a central tower where guards could monitor inmates housed in cells around the inner circumference of the structure. Jeremy Bentham saw this as an opportunity both for more effective surveillance of prisoners but also as ultimately affecting their "moral" rehabilitation:

"The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector's situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen...it is the most important point, that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so."(1)

Over 200 years later, Michel Foucault envisioned panopticism as a metaphoric principle of government domination over its subjects in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison:

"Panopticism is the general principle of a new 'political anatomy' whose object and end are not the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline. [...] These disciplines~ which the classical age had elaborated in specific, relatively enclosed places - barracks, schools, workshops - and whose total implementation had been imagined only at the limited and temporary scale of a plague-stricken town, Bentham dreamt of transforming into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time. The panoptic arrangement provides the formula for this generalization. It programmes, at the level of an elementary and easily transferable mechanism, the basic functioning of a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms."(2) 

Foucault theorized that our constant visibility within the urban environment gave our government much more control over its subjects through monitoring, and this power was conceived through panopticism.

The events immediately following the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this month provide us with an example of just how observed and observable our social order has become. The FBI and Boston Police initiated unprecedented actions to retrieve individual photographic imagery from those people present in Copley Square prior to the two detonations. Their efforts were rewarded with "crowd-sourced" video and cell phone images of the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers, their physical descriptions and their movements both before and after the bombs went off. 

Thus, panopticism apparently has a renewed viability in this Age of Terror as the "disciplinary mechanism" of ever-present, unknowable monitoring now becomes a silent watchdog of our urban streets, city parks and the citizens who inhabit them.

At what cost, however? The debate over the loss of personal freedoms in our "post-nine-eleven" world reached fever pitch during the Bush Administration's imposition of the Patriot Act, with its "sneak and peek" search warrants, NSL's and expansion of the FBI's access to voicemail through search warrants instead of tougher wiretap laws.(3)

With this latest "terrorist act," even if it proves to have been accomplished by so-called "lone wolves," there clearly appears to be a shift in public opinion, away from complaint to a more "Patriotic" position of "business as usual." The message is one of resolute fortitude, espoused as far back as 2001, that if we Americans cower inside closed apartments and homes then "the terrorists have won." But it seems as if we're in denial of the simple facts that American life as we know it has been forever altered, and not necessarily by these "terrorists."            

This is the paradox of the panoptic: we exchange our privacy for "protection" and choose surveillance over "terrorism." We rationalize that the erosion of our personal freedoms through President Obama's continuance of the Patriot Act (and Congress's proposed cybersecurity bill) is worth having more "security."

London has thousands of closed-circuit TV cameras aimed throughout its streets and buildings and the July 2005 bomb attacks in London that killed 52 commuters was "solved" with identification of the suicide bombers by CCTV footage. Yet a report by civil rights watchdog group, Big Brother Watch, claimed less than seven years later that the city was "no safer." 

Look up, right now, from your iPhone or laptop; stop reading this and look around you. Do you see an "eye in the sky?" If you're in a subterranean Metro station or a shopping mall there is probably a camera looking at you right now. Notice the the darkened lens cover? That's better to "hide" the camera eye and, symbolically, the "watcher." The essence of Bentham's invention and Foucault's theory is that you cannot tell for sure if you're being watched - at that moment. If you don't know whether you are being watched, do you know if you're secure? So do you feel safer? 


1. Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon, or The Inspection House, "Letter V: Essential Points of the Plan," 1787.

2. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, 1995.

3. USA PATRIOT Act (U.S. H. R. 3162, Public Law 107-56), Title II, Sec. 204 & 209.

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