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Philosophy and the Panopticon

Surveillance cameras watch our every move. They reduce crime and maybe save lives. So why the fuss about privacy? Scott O’Reilly discusses the technologies of control.

Imagine that you are sitting quietly by yourself reading the latest issue of Philosophy Now. Your attention is drawn to a slightly provocative article questioning the rise of the surveillance state and the growing trend towards information invasive technologies. You feel an unmistakable queasiness as you read about the accelerating erosion of privacy made possible by the information revolution. Suddenly you realize that nearly all your activities are captured by surveillance cameras: at the mall where you shop, on the city streets where you walk, and in the office where you work. It begins to dawn on you that every purchase you have ever made, every movie you’ve rented, every magazine you’ve subscribed to is part of an electronic profile in some vast consumer or bureaucratic database – and that every time you surf the web or send and receive e-mail you’ve left a digital trail others can follow. Unbeknownst to you a tiny electrode implanted under your skin has just recorded your emotional and physiological responses and classified them as ‘potentially deviant’. This information will soon be transmitted to unknown authorities who will make certain that you are watched even more carefully from now on.

Seem a little farfetched? Think again. With the exception of the implanted electrodes every other form of surveillance just mentioned is becoming routine. And at least one company in the United States has announced its intention to commercially market a data chip implant which will contain vital health, financial, and personal information, as well as the ability to locate individuals via Global Satellite Positioning technology. Technologies such as these, of course, have socially desirable applications, particularly in regards to preventing crime and terrorism. But do such technologies bring closer the prospect of an Orwellian dystopia, where no one can escape the watchful eye of Big Brother? What does philosophy have to say on this matter?

Perhaps the best place to start is with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the founders of Utilitarianism, which says that we should aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Bentham was a formative influence on the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). But whereas Mill is considered a rather progressive figure – he was an early advocate of women’s rights, for instance, and was one of the greatest-ever champions of individual liberty – Bentham is seen as something of a reluctant democrat. Originally Bentham attached great importance to the notion of enlightening despots, but when this proved a far more formidable challenge than he had originally supposed, he came round to many of the democratic reforms Mill later advocated, such as representative government and extending the suffrage. No mere theoretician, Bentham campaigned vigorously on numerous issues and his ideas brought about a number of reforms of Britain’s legal system. However, his most striking contribution was as the architect of the Panopticon.

Though it was never actually built during his lifetime, the Panopticon is Bentham’s vision for a scientifically-designed maximum security prison. Circular in shape, the structure features a central tower with individual cells radiating outward uniformly like spokes in a wheel. The characteristic feature of this arrangement is that there is a complete asymmetry of knowledge, and hence power: the guards in the central tower can see into any of the cells at any given time, but due to special blinds the inmates cannot see the guards, or if they are being watched at any specific moment.

Bentham the social reformer genuinely believed that social order and control could be fostered if the prisoners internalized the sense that they were being observed by unseen eyes. He also believed that the idea behind the Panopticon could be utilized in schools, factories, and hospitals. On the potential virtues of the Panopticon idea, Bentham wrote: “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instructions diffused … all [brought about] by a simple idea in Architecture.” Not everyone was as sanguine. When Bentham’s contemporary Edmund Burke saw the plans for the Panopticon he said: “There’s a spider in the web!”

Much of the recent resurgence of interest in the idea of the Panopticon is due to the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Foucault contended that the nature of the oneway surveillance in the Panopticon – what he referred to as the gaze – resulted in an asymmetry of knowledge, and hence power. Ultimately, Foucault argued, the omniscient surveillance created conditions whereby the observed themselves became instruments of their own suppression. So whereas Bentham viewed his Panopticon as a technology for reforming men, Foucault saw a method for creating “docile bodies.” Foucault writes that the major function of the Panopticon is:

To induce a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual use unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who uses it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer.

In a penal system this form of power relations might prove necessary, even beneficial. But Foucault argues that this form of power permeates the institutions of modernity. Foucault writes “Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labor, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality … should have become the instrument of penalty? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

With the accelerated use of digital surveillance technologies within modern democratic states, are we in danger of creating an ‘electronic Panopticon’? And would this necessarily be a bad thing? This may depend on your philosophical point of view. Jeremy Bentham, for instance was a Utilitarian who once famously described civil and natural rights as “nonsense on stilts.” As a Utilitarian, Bentham might argue that “the greatest good for the greatest number” outweighed quaint notions about human dignity. If the Panopticon principle can guarantee peace, order, and stability in social affairs then its utility will prove justified. And besides, unlike Orwell’s nightmarish vision of ‘Big Brother’ the modern surveillance state is turning out a lot more like an electronically-monitored ‘consumer paradise’ or ‘Disneyworld’ where “people are seduced into conformity,” not forced. If so, perhaps there is a sense in which each of us – in so far as we approve of and acquiesce in the continued construction of the surveillance state – is the despot Bentham wanted to ‘enlighten’, as much as we are the subjugated.

Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon principle, on the other hand, appears to assume some sort of conception of human nature and human dignity. This is surprising from a philosopher associated with post-modernism. But Foucault’s analysis and criticism of the Panopticon principle can remind us of all we stand to lose in the surveillance state. That constant surveillance tends to promote self-censorship, breeding conformity not creativity. That eliminating deviancy can also mean eliminating eccentricity and the exceptional. And that though the surveillance state promises to answer so many of our needs there is at least one need it cannot answer – the need to be left alone once in a while.

© Scott O’Reilly 2002

Scott O’Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is working on a book entitled Deconstructing Demagogues that examines how politicians misuse language.

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