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Surveillance is Power

"When inmates believe they are being watched, they conform to what they believe to be the norms of the prison and the expectations of their jailors. Surveillance is a mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less powerful individuals." (74)

This immediately reminds me of the panopticon, a completely surveilled prison design of Jeremy Bentham's. Powerful individuals often assert themselves as tyrannical rulers, and in every single example, the society they create is devoid of privacy, full of spies and surveillance. Privacy is a degree of freedom that can be very detrimental. If the nature of any action is hidden from any authority, then any action could theoretically be allowed. Almost always authority is powerful for a reason, and defying outright is not an option. This means that should the subjects under the authority wish to act in defiance, they must do so in secret. In the panopticon another extremely important element of the design is the lack of communication between inmates. Extreme surveillance accomplishes this effect, as the inmates are unable to speak without being listened to and are thus unable to step outside of the norms set by the authority. In George Orwell's 1984, the protagonist Winston lives in a dystopian future world where everyone is constantly under the watchful gaze of "Big Brother." Above all else Winston's very alone, and feels like he has no actual friends. The threat of punishment from authority is oftentimes more powerful than any physical restraint. The threat that someone might be watching creates enough pressure to follow the rules set out.

 

 

Ineffective but Accurate

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced a design he called a panopticon (“all seeing”) to be used in prisons or institutions such that all inmates can be watched by a single guard. Although there aren’t any structures of this model in existence, the concept can be viewed as a symbol for modern government surveillance. Benjamin Walker argues that this metaphor is weak, but I would argue that the panopticon, although not the most effective model, actually offers an accurate representation of our current system of surveillance.

The key feature of the panopticon is that each participant is unable to know whether he or she is being watched. The assumption, therefore, is that each inmate is inclined to behave as if they were in fact being monitored all the time. However, a single guard cannot watch a large number of people individually at the same time. Any informed inmate who knows the concept of the model understands that it is impossible that they are actually being watched all the time, realizing they  can get away with misbehaviors some of the time. For this reason, the panopticon is conceptually flawed.

Although the panopticon may not be the most efficient model, I think it actually offers a pretty accurate description of what we understand about the current system of surveillance. It is impossible for a single individual or organization to monitor all the online activity of everyone. If participants understand the system, they know that they can’t possibly be monitored all the time. People believe they can and still do get away with shady online activities.

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.

The Panopticon -

I both agree and disagree with Benjamin Walker's assertion that the Panopticon is a faulty metaphor. The panopticon is a theoretical building where a circular building is located around a central watchtower. The watchtower shines bright light such that the people in the watchtower can observe what those in the building below are doing, but the observed individuals can't see when they are being observed. Thus they must always assume that they are being watched. Originally meant to be a prison, the panopticon can be applied to a wide variety of situations.

In today's surveillance era, we are constantly tracked by cameras wherever we go; the cameras, as Walker argued the watchtower was, served as a means of deterrence. The argument goes that if there was visual evidence of your actions, engaging in criminal acts would be discouraged. But in today's digital age, there are no "eyes" silently tracking us as we move from news apps to games to video-sharing websites. Instead, giant corporations and governments silently track our data usage to build algorithms that can help protect us from bad actors. But without those digital eyes, we are more likely to engage in harmful behaviors that we believe are anonymous. This is, I believe, the biggest strength in the concept of the panopticon - the deterrence of being in a constant state of being observed. But even though we know we are being watched today, we still act as if we are invisible. The watchtower is particularly interesting; it has migrated from being a physical building to being countless data surveillance tools arrayed by a variety of actors. The panopticon is very much real today in its surveillance sense; whether our behavior is being normalized or corrected because of its presence(whether or not we know about it) is another issue.

The Panopticon Metapaphor isn't All That Bad.... Sue Me

In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, meant for prisoners to be monitored by an all seeing guard, who himself, could not be seen. Comparing this to surveillance now, particular regarding the internet, even thought the metaphor is kind of bad. It is not too far off of what could be happening.

Anyone and everyone who is using the internet knows that their usage habits are being monitored; if you do not not know, now you know. It is called data mining. That is why when you are on Forever 21's website shopping for dresses, you see Forever 21 dress advertisements on Facebook not even minutes after you have clicked off of Forever 21. This technically fits in with how a company, whether Facebook or Forever 21, is watching your online activity similar to how a guard is watching several prisoners.

I am also going to take this time to compare internet users to prisoners within a Panopticon. Our data is constantly being mined and our usage being monitored, however, we cannot really do anything about it. Before using most of these websites, we usually make an agreement for said website to do so. This is similar to how prisoners cannot (and will not) do much about a guard watching their every move.

Now in relation to the government being said guard and internet users being "prisoners," the Panopticon metaphor is not the best. Although there are a vast amount of theories out, there is not an "all seeing government." At least not within the United States. It is completely possible for the government obtain information about a person if they absolutely have to, however, the government is not constantly watching millions of citizens.

To sum it all up, Panopticon metaphor for data mining? Good. For government surveillance? Bad.

The Panopticon as a Faulty Metaphor

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon: a prison where a guard is located in a tower. He can see all the prisoners, but the prisoners can not see him. In addition, the prisoners are not aware if they are being watched or not. As a result, prisoners act on their best behavior. Some have equated the idea of the Panopticon to Internet surveillance. I agree with Walker's argument that you can not compare the two.

The main fault in this analogy is the fact that citizens are unaware of the fact that the government can look at their Internet data. We are mostly ignorant to the exact magnitude of the government's surveillance abilities. As a result, people do not try to make their search history particularly clean or innocent. In addition, I believe that if people were aware that the government was watching their online activity, most individuals would not alter their actions much as the average person is not doing anything illegal online.

Another issue with the Panopticon metaphor is that the prisoners are completely isolated from one another. The Internet has the complete opposite effect on its users, actually bringing people together and connecting individuals on a level never seen before in history. Because of this connection, individuals are able to share their ideas of surveillance. If someone becomes suspicious of their privacy, they would be able to share their sentiments with other Internet users.

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 Panopticon Isn't That Bad... But It's Not Good Either

As explained in the podcast, the Panopticon is essentially the idea of a tower that looks over a prison. The tower is illuminated so that the guard in the tower can see the inmates, but the inmates cannot see the guard. Although this could used to exemplify today's government surveillance, Walker disagrees, saying that it is a “terrible metaphor.”

To take a side in this debate is very difficult. On the one hand, the government has bribed sites like Yahoo, or Facebook, allowing them to access all of our information without our consent. On the other hand, data mining goes further than the negative assumptions we place on it. As Walker points out, in todays society we see data mining as exclusively negative. The government must be using our information for their personal gain right? However data mining does not solely have bad implications. One could use data mining to conduct studies in order to improve our internet experiences. You could also use data mining to research children in a comfortable setting. These are not bad things. In this case, I would agree with Walker. 

However things get a bit sketchy when you remember the negative possibilities of surveillance. We do not know what the government is using our data for. They could be simply conducting research to better our lives, or they could be discovering ways to most efficiently imprison members of society in order to create a mass genocide. That's a bit extreme. But I guess it could happen theoretically. My point is, just like the prisoners, we do not know what the people in charge are doing. Because of this, I could never definitely say that the Panopticon is a bad metaphor.

 

The Fallacy of the Panopticon Metaphor

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon is a hypothetical prison based on two concepts: the idea that the officers can spy on the inmates without the inmates knowing they're being spied on, and the premise that the inmates can't communicate with each other due to the separation of their cells. The comparison between current government surveillance and the Panopticon, however, is not an accurate metaphor.

In the Panopticon, the prisoners know they’re in prison. There are physical cells keeping the inmates from talking to each other, reminding them of their imprisonment. However, in reality, the "prisoners" of the government often don't even know they’re in prison. Many citizens are unaware of the government's ability to see into their lives through the Internet. They live in ignorant bliss, thinking that their lives are any sort of private. And, because they don't know they're "imprisoned", they don't have the thought to protect their data, and fight back against those doing the surveillance.

The other caveat is the concept that the prisoners are completely separate from each other. In reality, the web allows us to communicate with each other, and gather information through online sources. If we want to educate ourselves about anything (including governmental surveillance procedures), we can do it. Those who are aware that they're "imprisoned" do have the ability to band together and rebel, or at least try. The question of how we can best fight back still has yet to be answered.

 

Too Many Eyes to Fit in the Panopticon's Tower

I would agree with Walker’s claim that the Panopticon is not an accurate metaphor for the average human’s interaction with surveillance today. While it could be argued that the government does watch over us and large corporations do silently collect our data, most people are not aware of this and thus it does not enact behavioral changes like it was supposed to do in the Panopticon. Additionally, Walker argues that the Panopticon metaphor limits its idea of surveillance solely to the “big brother” in the tower—the NSA or government, in our case—while today there exists so many other forms of surveillance such as the “self-surveillance” present on so many social media sites, or the ability of companies like Facebook to collect and sell your data, or Amazon’s Alexa to listen in on your conversations to find out what you might want to buy next. I would argue, however, that our increasingly socially connected world allows for the “self-surveillance” of another nature, however. Not only do social media sites allow so much scrutiny by the court of public opinion that it might feel like someone is always watching you online, but many social media outlets now have means of physical surveillance by one’s own peers. Apps like “Find my Friends” allow those who you “add” to track your location, while the widely used social media app Snapchat has now created a map that shows you where all of your Snapchat friends are at any given time, provided that they are not on “ghost mode.” Services like these allow for so much more surveillance from many sources, not just the man in the Panopticon’s tower.

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