The Panopticon (and our digital surveillance society)

Have you ever had the feeling you are being watched, you are under the surveillance of unseen watchers, your every move is being tracked, they even know your thoughts? Welcome to the Panopticon. Digital technology makes possible the nightmare world envisaged by well meaning but misguided eighteenth century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham …

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An artists impression of a Panopticon (Picture: pattheponderer, wordpress )

We live in a surveillance society. We are watched every day by cameras in our towns and along main roads, details of our financial transactions and social interactions via the internet are saved to databases and analyzed by software to build a picture of our lifestyle, habits, preferences and peccadillos which will be available to those willing to pay. The government through its obsession with surveillance and building a matrix of cross indexed references knows everything about our health, career progress, what car we drives, whether we have ever been late paying out taxes and so on.

Since I published the first version of this article a few years ago things have not improved with regard to our right to privacy, supposedly one of the inalienable rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention of 1948. Advances in facial recognition, the widespread adoption of digital personal assistants — which like any good PA are never off duty, always ready to help us but at the same time building a record of our domestic lives, advances in the tracking capability of the now ubiquitous smartphones, culminating in the assault on personal freedom facilitated by the COVID — 19 pandemic have combined to extend the ability of corporate business and government agencies to build an ever more complete picture of our lives. Jeremy Bentham’s envisaged Panopticon was a penal institution in which order was theoretically maintained because all the inmates could see each other at all times and were incentivized by the prospect of earning better food and living conditions or time off their sentences for reporting the misdemeanours of fellow inmates to the governing authority. How little Mr. bentham understood of the criminal mind.

The Panopticon can be reinterpreted as the kind of prison state envisaged by many writers, George Orwell in his novel 1984, written in 1948 predicted not only a totalitarian government obsessed with power and control but an agency called The Thought Police whose function was to identify people whose minds might be straying “off — message”, by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and by the post-modern philosopher Michel Foucault in his book “Discipline and Punish” which introduced to fiction the idea of The Watchers, borrowed perhaps from a middle eastern text of the early Biblical era, The Book of Enoch. (Enoch : The Watchers). Enoch, though thought to be the earliest text of the people we now call Hebrews, is not part of The Old Testament. Although not included in the modern Bible, Enoch is referred to in Ezekiel, Jude and several other Biblical books and very obviously had a great influence on The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine (aka Revelations). Clearly however, the worlds of total surveillance and through it total control envisioned by those books is made possible by modern technology.

Foucault’s image of the Panopticon reflected his belief that our modern social order is based on our love of technical rationality. The Panopticon embodies the modern love of surveillance and control. The Panopticon is a system (not necessarily a tower as is often imagined, think of it as a metaphorical tower although it may well be a subterranean computer centre or a modern hi — tech city. Its purpose was to keep the subject under continual observation and thus through the unarticulated threat of sanction would pressure subject into a regime of strict self discipline.

The Panopticon, was first conceived and designed by the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1791. Bentham was founder of the Utilitarian movement in philosophy, his ideas being built around the goal of achieving “the greatest good of the greatest number.” He described his idea of The Panopticon as the “ideal” prison for modern times. It consisted of a central observation tower with an encircling building containing prison cells. The observers in the tower could see everybody in the cells all of the time, but the people in the cells could not see the observers, who were hidden from sight in the tower, which was darkened.

“Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated, instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!” Bentham proclaimed. “A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence — The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.” (from: Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts (Jeremy Bentham, London, 1798)

Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on how the greatest greatest good of the greatest number principle might be achieved were not always thoroughly thought through. In common with many moral and social philosophers, his ideas looked great on paper but in practical terms were unworkable. Bentham spent much of his time and fortune on designs for the Panopticon. The Panopticon (“all-seeing”) was a prison (but might be thought of in terms of a dystopian society like those depicted in1984, Brave New World, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The idea was that constant and total surveillance of the inmates by fellow prisoners and by their supervisors would ensure good behaviour and encourage rehabilitation into society. Bentham’s intention was humanitarian; but the penal system was perhaps not the best place to start putting his utilitarian philosophies into practice.

The greatest happiness principle, if we take Bentham’s ideas to their conclusion, dictates the construction, not of prisons, but the secular equivalent of Heaven-on-Earth, which is in line with the technocratic state of Huxley’s Brave New World in which the managerial classes enjoyed an opulent and privileged lifestyle, the industrial and administrative workers existed in comfort and prosperity and the underclass, the Epsilon D semi morons were given free drugs to pacify them. However when people stepped out of line or tried to think for themselves and question the narrative their lives were made hell.

When harnessed to biotechnology, this utopian-sounding vision is feasible — albeit implausible. Yet the ideological obstacles to global happiness may prove greater than the practical challenges: the contemporary utilitarian project needs more visually compelling symbols than an image of discipline and punishment. On utilitarian grounds, the Panopticon is perhaps best forgotten. People are more likely to be pacified by round the clock TV on 72" internert enabled plasma screen transceivers, cheap junk food and a morally lax atmosphere.

Foucault felt Bentham’s Panopticon captured not the highest ideal of the Utilitarian movement but the essence of the modern age: the powerless are exposed to the relentless gaze of the powerful. The powerless are coerced to act in accordance with the standards and expectations of the powerful, without the powerful actually have to touch or come in contact with the powerless (forget all the high minded windbaggery of lefties, the elite might talk of fairness and equality but truly despise the masses). The lower grades must must always act in accordance with the expectations of the powerful. In other words, vigilance supplants torture. The powerful don’t have to touch you nor be seen by you in order to exert their power over you.

In government propaganda, in education, news media, most mainstream literature, films, television we are taught to admire and trust this particular small group of elite people, since only they are noble enough, selfless enough, intelligent enough to “save” us from our ignorance and stupidity. It is the blueprint for domination followed by every fascistic regime since ancient Egypt, Babylon and Sumeria. Understanding of how it works throws light on much of the apparent insanity going on today. Ironically the Utilitarians, along with romantics, Chartists, existentialists and other social and philosophical movements of the era known as “The Enlightenment” fought for and won for the masses the right to education.

Suddenly, about half way through the twentieth century, the elites found that the educated proletariat were asking a lot of difficult questions and no longer placed a childlike trust in elitists to ensure that “all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” (More on that in a later article) The outcome of allowing the masses to escape from the darkness threatened the superiority of the elites. Their response was dumbing down in education, the promotion of a shallow, materialistic cultures and the development of huge industries dedicated to manipulating the minds of ordinary people.

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THEM (poem with video)

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