Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Panopticon

PANOPTICON: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

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 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.

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.

We Live in a Panopticon, Here's Why

The concept of the panopticon in a practical sense seems inefficient, as the whole idea of it builds of the power on the individuality of the worker. The idea that without collaboration, there is no workplace interference that would slow workers down. In principle, leading to increased productivity. However without workers collaborating on projects and sharing information on how to maximize time and space, the quality of finished products would be inconsistent as each individual worker would create a piece that varies from one colleague to the next. Leading certain pieces of a project or product to become incompatible because of these slight individualities creating a faulty product and thus a flawed system.

Metaphorically, I do not agree with his thesis. I believe that the metaphor of the panopticon is accurate regarding our conversations about surveillance. From how I understood it, the panopticon metaphor is about an authority watching us but we cannot see them like the government or an internet company watching over us regular people and collecting data from our online habits. The metaphor makes sense to me because we don’t know who has access to our online information like our passwords or emails much like people working in a panopticon have no idea who’s in the tower watching them or if they are even being watched in the first place.

Can panopticon works as a good metaphor?

I do not agree with Benjamen Walker argument: "the Panopticon is a terrible metaphor". Walker argues that there are many companies may have ability to surveillance and these companies can work as a better metaphor for the surveillance. However, I think these two examples are basically same because they both suggest that people are spied without being known. The subject of the panopticon is prisoner, but the company like “yahoo” may check everyone’s email even though the person is law-abiding citizen. If the government use the panopticon as a metaphor, it can provide the citizens a suggestion that the government only uses their system to spy for terrorists. These two kinds of metaphor lead to different consequences. One may result in the protestation of the citizens for invading their personal right, but the other one may not. The word panopticon tends to provide a more positive feeling to the normal citizens that the government only surveillance bad guys. What’s more, the prisoners in the panopticon do not know they are being surveillance or not. This kind of feeling matches with the government actions that we do not know whether we are spied or not. Thus, the panopticon can work as aa good metaphor for the topic of surveillance.

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.

Page 2 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén