Surveillance Society – Panopticon In The Age Of Digital Media (Donna Susan Mathew), Part 1

The following is the first of a two-part series.

“The social technologies we see in use today are fundamentally panoptical – the architecture of participation is inherently an architecture of surveillance.” Joshua-Michéle Ross

The concept of the “Panopticon” as derived by Jeremy Bentham  is one of the most significant reference points to surveillance ethics in the modern age. The panopticon refers to a prison, shaped like a circular grid with the cells adjacent to the outside walls. At the center of the circular building stands a tower where the prison supervisor would live and monitor the inmates.

Large external windows and smaller internal windows in each cell would allow the supervisor to monitor the activities of the prisoners. The premise was that the prisoners would not know when they were under surveillance, Bentham argued, which in turn would lead the prisoners to believe that they were constantly under watch and would encourage them to be self-disciplined. This type of environment would promote discipline and would deter the prisoners from misbehaving or committing crimes in the future.   

Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish (1975) breathed new life into the concept of panopticon. Foucault argued that the panopticon was being used as a disciplinary mechanism in societies in order to subjugate its citizens. Foucault looked at the use of power and its increasing bureaucratization in the modern world. He studied torture and the emphasis on the sovereignty and power of the king.

In the period of Enlightenment, the prison system was introduced and was accepted as an efficient means of punishment and a disciplinary mechanism that went beyond military or religious arenas. Owing to the seemingly persistent gaze of the prison supervisor, the panopticon served as both a means of punishment and a form of discipline for the prisoners.

Today the panopticon is used to analyze surveillance in various different settings such as the workplace, government administration, and consumer contexts. The importance of panopticon as a metaphor begins to fade when we start thinking about whether modern forms of surveillance are analogous to the central tower concept. This begs me to ask the question- Does the fact that we do not know that we are being watched indicate that we are being normalized in the way the panopticon was intended to correct behavior?

In the panopticon the prisoners are constantly in fear of being watched which is indeed the point. However in the digital era, state surveillance on the internet is almost impossible to locate. It is invisible; there is no visual marker such as the central tower, no supervisor staring at you every time you log into a webpage.

Digital Panopticon

It was not until the Snowden leaks that individuals were made aware of the sheer scale of the surveillance by the NSA. One could argue that this essentially makes the system more panoptic as we are aware of it. The emphasis in this case is not concerning correcting behavior but on providing security from those who would threaten the sovereignty of the country. Modern day surveillance techniques supported by technological advances adds a degree of complexity and mobility with which society has not encountered before. Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras provide a ubiquitous presence, one that is hidden and often anonymous and to a large extent is likened to the panopticon on a major scale.

With Bentham’s conception of panopticon, and to some extent the presence of CCTV, there is a corporeal sense of exposure in the face of authority. A large chunk of our lives are spent online and we share so much data every single day, but we do not feel the same attachment to the data as we do for our bodies. Our data, however, is under surveillance, not just by the government but also by corporations looking to capitalizing on that information.

In the age of social media we are constantly under a vast grid of surveillance – of permanent visibility. Social networks have made it a routine to engage its users into self-reporting about what they are doing, reading, thinking in the form of status updates. The crowd reading the post are not only made aware of our personal thoughts, feelings and preferences, but are also acutely aware of our location. In a lot of cases we are opting into these automated reporting structures that detail our location at any given point in time. This is done in exchange for simple pleasures like finding a good local restaurant or a park without taking into account the trade-off. In other words we are in part responsible for contributing to the panopticon culture – by willingly sharing our data and our every movement, and status is made a matter of public record.

Modern day panopticon architecture is omnipresent and insidious. It no longer remains in the prison system but has permeated towards society as a whole. Panopticism in the digital era is more subtle in its nature, we are forced to conform to norms and behave accordingly while never actually being aware of the hold it has over us. The watchtower has been replaced by security cameras and algorithms, police presence and data trawlers. “The counterpart to the central observation tower,” Soshana Zuboff notes, “has become a video screen. The web of windows is replaced by procedures for data entry such as microprocessors built into operating equipment, or the control interfaces that record operator inputs, or daily system updates provided by crafts workers in their remote field sites” (323)

Though the physical panopticon model was never actually constructed, Foucault argues that since the Industrial Revolution there is a metaphoric panoptic model has been encapsulating society. The modern education system was developed to ensure that school children were well groomed for a life of working in factories, it aimed to give them just enough knowledge to join the workforce and become productive, docile bodies. With the spread of imperialism in the 19th century, populations were conditioned through disciplinary mechanisms to become more docile susceptible to hegemonic control.

The presence of guards ensured that the subjects were kept in line and were doing their jobs. Owing to the threat of punishment and an ever present system of visual surveillance people became more aware of their own behavior and took pains to ensure that they followed the rules. By engaging in surveillance of their own against themselves, they became instrumental in their own domination and subjugation. This concept of self-surveillance is a cornerstone of Foucaultian disciplinary power.

An important feature of the panoptic model is that it is founded on the premise of presenting fiction as indisputable fact. This can be seen through the omnipresent nature of the supervisor/observer. The belief is that as long as they remain invisible but still felt as a presence, they can be considered to be able to see everything at once, and the prisoners in the panopticon will not know otherwise. “The moment the inspector allows himself to be seen anywhere in the panopticon,” Miran Božovič writes, “he loses his omnipresence in the eyes of those who can see him: those who can see him, can, of course, tell whether his eyes are directed toward them; those who can see him thus can see they are not being seen” (9).

The Gaze

The notion of the gaze is a major feature of panopticon, both for those on the inside of the watchtower and those without. It is the element of not knowing where the guards are, who they are and what they are observing that is keeping the system afloat. If the prisoners can see into the watchtower and observe everything, then the entire system would collapse.

As it is fundamentally impossible to keep watch of every single prisoner at all times, the panoptic model creates the illusion that they are being watched. The fiction narrative of the watchful eye is carried further by convincing the prisoners that at every instant they could be under observation which further reinforces that fiction. The prisoners begin to internalize this fiction and modify behavior to avoid being punished by the inspector.  

The modern panopticon does not rely on a central watchtower. The goal of the modern panopticon is to make those in the system forgot that they are under observation. Even though surveillance cameras hold a ubiquitous position in public spaces, these cameras themselves have been made to appear as subtle and hidden as possible, often blending into the surroundings. CCTV cameras especially have been designed in such a way that would make it easy for people not to notice them.

To some extent most people are aware they are being watched, however the unobtrusive nature of the cameras makes it is easy for people to forget their existence and drop the pretense of self-surveillance. Because of the fact that these surveillance cameras are not as easily visible to people, they no longer feel the panoptic gaze on them and are far less likely to behave in the same way as the subjects in a traditional panopticon model such as a prison.

Society today is steeped in systems of panoptic power, this has led to a condition of normalization of behavior for fear of retribution from the State. While it can be argued that the fear of the gaze can deter criminal behavior and promote a society that is, by and large, safer, this comes at the expense of personal freedom. With the introduction of CCTV and computerized data over the past several decades, it has made it relatively easier for people to access other peoples’ personal data.

The modern panoptic society raises important ethical questions concerning individuals’ privacy and security. In the American context, the modern panopticon could be in violation of the constitutional rights to freedom of expression. The modern panoptic society is a reality and we encompass it. There is no denying that our data is readily available for anyone who wants access to it and we are under constant observation both by way of a camera lens and by tracking data. One must wonder if the price of living in a secure and technologically advanced society is worth the price of personal freedom. However in a panopticon, you are told that you are free and that if one has nothing to hide, then there is nothing to fear.

Foucault also echoes Sartre in his discourse on gaze, as “to look”. According to David Shumway, “Sartre argued that to be caught by the look of another is to be objectified and rendered a thing rather than an object or person, and as a result to feel shamed, alienated, enslaved and even endangered by the other” (52). This essentially is the purpose of disciplinary power, by reducing the subject to a “body” rather than a person, it dehumanizes them making them more susceptible to institutional control. The Foucaultian nature of gaze “is a matter of applying a language or a mathematic to the thing seen so that it is constituted by the observer in his terms” (53). Foucault’s concept of the gaze was linked to a loss of freedom and autonomy by the individual. In Foucault’s system of disciplinary power, notes John Ransom, individuals are reduced to a political force and are intended to be exploited according to the best possible use of their skills. (46)

Normalization is used as a tool to making a more productive society. These procedures increase efficiency and can help generate more capital in a factory environment. According to Foucault, disciplinary power takes human impulses and makes use of it to create a more productive society. The main aim of disciplinary power is to compel other forces to accept the disciplinary framework as the norm, and the disciplinary norm as the absolute truth. By making us aware of the disciplinary apparatus, the subjected population engages in self-surveillance, which can lead to a betterment of oneself. Disciplinary power allows those in power to decide what is “normal” and then impose that idea on those beneath them in the hierarchy, and in time those subjected bodies see it as “normal” too,

Panoptic Technologies

In modernity, technological advancements have made it possible to observe large populations vastly exceeding anything Bentham could have predicted. The rise of the modern security state has led to governments and corporations being able to monitor the behaviors and trends of citizens and consumers to more easily control them and to enforce checks on transgressive behavior. People are constantly told not to fear surveillance in the modern panoptic system. Surveillance mechanism are carried out in the interest of public good.

The move towards more refined camera and facial recognition technology and biometrics has changed the surveillance landscape. Now with the overlapping of gazes, it far more easy for the Inspector to gather information about an individual provided he has access to the appropriate databases. It can be argued that the idea of privacy and personal information is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Much of these databases that record facial patterns overlap each other, this eventually leads to the gradual leakage of data from the public sector into the private, and vice versa.

Employers can carry out background checks of their employees and potential hires through these resources. These security systems were created with ostensibly altruistic intentions. Law enforcement and governments make use of these technologies to single out and locate escaped criminal, known terrorist or a missing person. But these resources also come with faults as they have the tendency to act less than altruistically when directed at refugees, political dissidents or striking trade unionists. What is concerning is that such technologies are moving into the hands of private corporate security, which stands outside the purview of regulation and democratic accountability that constrains state agencies.

Left on their own these new technologies can be considered a by-product of positive social benefit. The potential risks posed by contemporary surveillance are weighed and counterbalanced by the increased sense of security they provide. According to Foucault, freedom is an underlying condition for power, and in the absence of freedom the only method through which power can be exercised is domination (Crane, p. 304). The disciplinary system allows for subjects to be free, in so far as they are presented with choices for their behavior.

In the event that they have been conditioned well, they will engage in self-surveillance and behave in accordance with the norms of the social framework they are placed in. Foucault posits that self-governing and self-surveillance were tools used in repression and social control, but like any tool, they could be turned into more productive means. In a modern panoptic model, subjects are expected to keep a check on their own behavior to better fall in line with the social norms, however, this increase of self-awareness can inadvertently allow the subjects to become a more proactive force in their own conception of freedom.

Donna Susan Mathew is a marketing and communications specialist with expertise in corporate communications, digital media, public relations and market research. Her research interests include media studies, information communication technologies, entertainment research, political communication and feminist theory. She has a dual master’s degree in Global Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and the University of Southern California. Donna is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture at Michigan Technological University.

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