The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Bentham


Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian philosopher, is the original creator of the concept of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a surveillance facility, typically a prison, which is supposed to achieve a foolproof system. In a panopticon, prisoners are held in cells in a rotunda building with an illuminated inspection tower in the middle. In this system, the prison guard in the inspection tower can see into every cell in the surrounding rotunda building. However, since the tower is illuminated, the prisoners cannot see the guard. They never know when they are being watched, so they are incentivized to act as if they are being watched always, making for perfect order. Since Bentham first invented the concept, people have begun to think about the Panopticon as a metaphor for how the government surveys the public. This metaphor works for explaining how the government might like to survey the public, but it ends up oversimplifying the situation.

The Panopticon works in an interesting way as a metaphor for how the government would like surveillance to go. First, in the Panopticon, the surveillance officer can see all, yet cannot be seen. In many ways, this is how the government would like to maintain order. To be able to monitor all activity with ease would, in theory, be the best way to identify and shut out danger and crime. However, the real cost would be the people’s feelings of being violated. However, in the Panopticon, the prisoners cannot identify the prison guard or whether or not they're being watched. In theory, they have no method of exposing those who have violated them. Moreover, an important way that the Panopticon is a great metaphor for the inceptive aspect of the system. Most people see government surveillance as a way to catch those who are already posing a threat to society. However, the Panopticon, when used as a metaphor, reminds us that the government can also survey to deter people from acting out. In the Panopticon, prisoners behave because they are inceptived to act as if they are always being watched. Similarly, the government can use surveillance techniques as a way to scare people against acting out for fear that they may be caught. 

Despite its strong suits, the Panopticon fails as a metaphor to accurately explain the give and take between privacy and security. In the panopticon, the prisoners cannot interact with each other and are unable from learning anything about the guards who are watching them. But this is far from the truth in the real world. In reality, those who feel violated always fight back by interacting with each other and teaming up against oppression. The panopticon does not account for this happening, yet it always will. Additionally, privacy movements usually are popularized due to the public learning about a way that the government has been violating privacy rights. In the real world, people always learn new information about the government in relation to privacy. For these reasons, the panopticon does not accurately explain surveillance systems and everything that happens around them. 

The Prison Metaphor

Jeremy Bentham’s invention, the panopticon, should never have become a metaphor. The panopticon at its core remains a prison. When Jeremy Bentham introduced it, the majority of its benefits that he presented came as a direct consequence of the isolation that prisoners faced. Bentham brings up the inability of prisoners to communicate with each other and thus unable to start riots or plan future crimes. The surveillance of the tower in the middle is secondary. The idea that since the prisoners are unsure of when they are being surveilled and thus they are forced to live their lives as if they are under constant supervision, is a whole separate concept. The panopticon is a collection of three key ideas: the state of isolation, the state of constant surveillance and the stress of not knowing when surveillance is happening. It is possible to argue that surveillance is constantly happening today, however the isolation of prisoners that prevents any sort of communication and interaction with prisoners does not model our society at all. The definition of a society is a group of people living together in a community. As community is an integral aspect of human civilization, the panopticon metaphor falls apart. Additionally, the premise of anxiety is that the prisoners are fully aware of the higher power and its ability to spy on them. However in today’s society oftentimes we are unsure of the extent to which the higher power, usually the government, is able to see us. The influence of a higher authority is thus mitigated as it seems intangible, unlike the constant glare of the illuminated tower. The prisoners under total control of the higher authority do not model the hesitant balance of power between the people and the government.

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