Jeremy Bentham’s great theory was the Panopticon: a hypothetical prison design in which all inmates could be seen and observed by those in charge, but the inmates themselves could not see the observers, nor could they see any other inmates. It’s an interesting concept to think about in theory, but it is not useful as a metaphor in our conversations about surveillance, and, as time goes on, its effectiveness will only diminish.
There are two key features to the Panopticon that make it unique: the observer sees all, but is not observed, and those being observed are isolated from one another. The first feature fits fairly well as a metaphor into our conversations about surveillance. The observer (in this case, probably the government) takes information from the internet, from travel history, from any official record of our existence in the world, without our knowledge. We are observed, but we never see it happen.
Where the Panopticon metaphor breaks down is in the second feature: those being observed are isolated from each other. In the conversation of surveillance, it’s unclear exactly what this part would stand as a metaphor for. People are more connected now than at any point in human history, and that is made possible by the same technology that makes modern surveillance possible. Instead of building metaphorical walls between us, the internet gives us access to each other like nothing ever has. It’s called the information superhighway for a reason: it instantaneously connects us from across the world.
For the Panopticon to be a more useful metaphor, I would suggest a tweak to the design: make the walls between inmates out of glass. Better yet, remove them entirely.