Monday 24 October 2016

The Panopticon - Total Surveillance Society

by Ian R Thorpe, reposted 24 October 2016

Ever had that feeling you are being watched, unseen eyes are monitoring your every move, recording your every action, even knowing what you think. We live in a surveillance society but few really understand how intrusive the activiries of the watchers are. Welcome to the Panopticon. Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham's ideal prison has become a metaphor for the world we have created. We are told electronic surveillance and tracking are necessary for our security but we all know that's bollocks, don't we?

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 form filling and 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.

The Panopticon can be reinterpreted as a world 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 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. 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 English 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!" the thinker 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 in Orwell's 1984, Franz Kafka's The Trial, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Terry Gilliam's film Brazil or Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. The idea was to allow constant and total surveillance of the inmates by their supervisors. 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. When harnassed 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.

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 internalize and 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). Furthermore, at any given moment the powerless people do not actually know whether or not they are being actively watched and so can never let down their guard. They 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.

(Copyright © Ian R Thorpe, 2012 (Creative Commons terms apply - Attrib, Non - comm, no derivs)


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