Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Jeremy Bentham

We in Fact Know

The argument that Benjamen Walker presents is one that claims that the analogy of the Panopticon does not correlate with the surveillance of our conversations and our actions. For the most part, I believe that Benjamin Walker has every right to say this simply because of the fundamental basis for both of these concepts.

The Panopticon, in essence, is a building that serves as a “surveillance machine”. It was a structure that Jeremy Bentham advocated for and mainly thought of its use as a prison, where the prisoners sat in their respective cells in the open circular building, while the guards stood in the illuminated tower, having the ability to watch the prisoners at any given moment. Due to the illumination of the center tower, the prisoners could not see outside their cell, which means that they do not know if they are being watched at any point in time. And while this analogy can be generally acceptable, understanding what surveillance is in our context can help us understand the flaws of this comparison.

One noticeable hole is that in terms of surveillance, we do in fact know that we are being watched. In fact, we have come to accept the fact that we are being watched practically all the time. Yet many a time, we don’t let that thought affect what we decide to see or what we decide to say in our daily conversations. The comparison to the prison would be accurate if the government was hindering our every word, our every Google search, etc. But because this is not the case, the Panopticon cannot be an effective way to describe the surveillance that happens today.

We Don’t Care That We’re Being Watched

The principle problem of the Panopticon metaphor is rooted in Bentham’s original purpose for the structure: behavioral modification. As Walker puts it, Bentham believed that the mere act of being being watched constantly would alter a person’s behavior, adding a layer of accountability and therefore pushing the person in question towards a more moral or sociably acceptable course of action.

As Walker points out, however, modern surveillance is completely incompatible with this idea. He uses the example of digital watchers overstepping their boundaries, but it is apparent that even in everyday, mundane examples of surveillance, people simply don’t change their behavior. For example, consider Facebook. It’s no secret that Facebook tracks and stores almost every bit of information its users will provide it (how else will Zuckerberg learn what it means to be human). Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that knowledge became headline news; everyone knew Facebook was effectively spying on them. Since then, Facebook has gained almost 100 million users.

If people know they’re being watched, why do they opt into the system?

Simply put, it’s because it’s impossible to live without the system. The Panopticon may have been a prison, but technology is so integral to modern life that opting out simply isn’t an option. Beyond just Facebook, social media provides a fast and efficient communication system, and Google is the premiere tool to find information in the blink of an eye. These systems are unlike prison in that we want and need to be a part of them to survive the modern world. They’ve made life easy and convenient enough that the expectation is that we use them to augment our abilities to both work and play. For that reason, the Panopticon is a defunct metaphor that cannot encapsulate the complexity of modern surveillance. It’s not just that there are too many actors that watch us from the watchtower, but that we have to remain in the prison if we want to maintain a standard of living that we’re used to; we’ve collectively decided that the opportunity cost of opting out of the system is too great, even if we maintain some semblance of privacy. Yet, we don’t begrudgingly use these apps, either. People still love to browse using Google, wish their friends ‘happy birthday’ on Facebook, and post their latest fire selfie on Instagram.

Altogether, we just really don’t care that we’re being watched.

The Walls Are Very Porous

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.

Blog Assignment #5

For your fifth blog assignment, listen to the “Burning Down the Panopticon” episode of the podcast Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything and write a post between 200 and 400 words that responds to the following prompt.

Benjamen Walker argues that “the Panopticon is a terrible metaphor” for “our conversations and debates about surveillance.” Do you agree with this thesis? Why or why not?

Note that if you agree with Walker’s thesis, you should extend his argument in your blog post in some interesting way.

Please (1) give your post a descriptive title, (2) assign it to the “Student Posts” category, and (3) give it at least three useful tags. Your post is due by 9:00 a.m. on Monday, September 23rd.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén