Panopticon Society

The 1966 UN law on privacy states: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."


panopticon_small.jpg

source: Wikimedia Commons

We all know the panopticon prison; a circular building with a watch-tower in the middle, with guards behind one-way glass windows. This is a brilliant design, because large numbers of inmates can be controlled with very little effort. The guards are invisible to the prisoners and therefore they never know for sure if they're being watched or not:

"The Panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched."
source: Wikipedia

The mere possibility that they're being watched is enough:

"... the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, they are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour."
source: Wikipedia

The key words there are "... they are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour". This should make you stop and think about our society as a whole. Make no mistake; we live in the panopticon society Orwell described so well in "1984". We even celebrate the principle in popular tv shows like "Big Brother" (if that title doesn't give you the chills, go read "1984"). Remember that prisons are not the only institutions where this panopticon principle applies; schools, workplaces, (mental) hospitals are all places where "inhabitants" are constantly monitored by unseen all seeing eyes. This influences their behavior to live up to certain "norms" that are demanded by the watchers.


Foucault: Crime, Police, & Power | Philosophy Tube

"I have nothing to hide" is a phrase far too often heard. The law I cited in the beginning now only seems to apply to governments and businesses: when their privacy is violated they can count on the full force of the protection the law provides. Vice versa they invade our privacy on a panoptical scale. Wikileaks and Snowden and Assange know this to be true. Philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault knew this to: according to him laws are not primarily there to prevent or punish crime, but to defend the power of the ruling class. That's why there's proportionally so many laws concerning private property rights and so little on murder, rape or... privacy.

Especially the penal system designed by Jeremy Bentham, is constructed to further the objectives of the ruling class; Bentham predicted that the system would, as a bonus for the elite, end up to be profitable as well, he foresaw the birth of the "Prison Industrial Complex". Prisons make money by filling them up with people who smoke weed or are late paying their traffic tickets, while white-collar criminals who damage the lifes of thousands and millions at a time stay out of the prisons. Watch the included videos to learn all about the relationship between Foucault and Bentham and how the four principles of power result in a population that is manipulated to be profitable for it's ruling class.

This idea of constantly being watched is normalized in our digital age through social networks like Facebook and popular search algorithms like Google. It annoys me, and hopefully you too, if I search for something and next time I go to the web, Google and YouTube and Facebook has "learned" about another one of my preferences or dislikes. If I'm not conscious about it, I end up in my own little "confirmation bubble" in which I'm safely assured that my worldview will never be challenged again; I'm securely protected from "unwanted" opinions and ideologies by an impenetrable wall of friends- and favorites-lists and the trusty search-algorithms that find only what I like, thereby creating a whole new prison for me.

Nothing is free, and therefore the success of Facebook and Google is somewhat unsettling. The internet is the greatest tool we have to gain more freedom, to better connect. But mixed with the power structures that define the panoptical society it is also our greatest foe; Facebook and Google make money by constantly watching your every move and selling the gathered information on the information market: your information is the product they trade. And laws are set in place that make them share this information with governments.

You might not mind that right now, but just stop and think how easy it would have been for a bloody tyrant like Hitler to realize his plans of locating and removing whichever population segments he deemed not worthy of existence in his Empire, if he would rule today. The power of total, permanent and unseen surveillance is not to be underestimated; like the prisoners in the original panoptican prison, our behavior is manipulated just as much. Now please watch the short videos; they'll make perfectly clear that we live under pervasive and obscure power...


Foucault 2: Government Surveillance & Prison | Philosophy Tube


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