Some Thoughts on Panopticism


Foreword: This is a rather extensive digression on two topics and a series of thought experiments that particularly interest me.

Why we are not living in a panopticon at this moment: 

One of the most common pitfalls, in my opinion, when comparing the panopticon of a prison with modern day real life surveillance is the whole philosophy behind these two systems. The idea of a panopticon is that it allows the prisoners to know they are being watched as well as who is watching them, but does not actually watch them at all times. Real-life surveillance on the other hand watches without discretion, but does not instigate the same amount of fear and paranoia from the general populace. This is why I think that panopticism does not predominate in today’s society, which is probably a good thing.

Firstly, surveillance cameras are hidden from plain view. We are expected to believe that we are not being watched, in order to spare us the anxiety of having discrete cameras trained at us wherever we go . We might have cameras everywhere monitoring the actions of passersby, but their presence won’t be directly felt. One might then present two counter-arguments, one being that many places do come with warnings that announce the presence of surveillance systems, the other being that the indiscreet nature of surveillance cameras acts as the invisible eyes of the warden within the tower. As a rebuttal, even if there is a sign saying that a building is under surveillance, the cameras still won’t be clearly visible. One knows they are being watched, but without the looming tower hammering the point home. The role of the tower is not only to give the warden the ability to a survey the entire prison easily, but to strike fear into the prisoners through its unwavering presence. Hidden cameras do not provide that.

Secondly, surveillance cameras are truly all seeing, it does a lot, rather than doing little but making it appear like a lot. The prison warden in the central tower cannot watch all the prisoners at once, he relies on the psychological awareness of the prisoner and their paranoia in order to give the impression that he is all seeing. This is a kind of Schrodinger’s Cat situation, where the prisoner is both seen and not seen; but they must err on the side of caution. On the other hand, surveillance cameras are not able to psychologically outwit their victims to such a degree, instead, they ensure we are being watched at all moments. There is a clear dichotomy between whether they are surveillance cameras around, and whether there are not, as opposed to the perpetual uncertainty of the prison panopticon. It is costly to install a surveillance system and it consumes a large amount of energy as they continue to record even if nothing of interest is happening. The idea of the panopticon is that it maximizes the effectiveness of one prison warden. Inside a heavily surveilled location such as an airport or a government building there is no paranoid uncertainty; the cameras are there, we are being watched, instead of occupying a middle-ground between being watched

Thirdly, since the central tower of a panopticon is not truly all-seeing, but rather . One can gain a sense of pride when being put under the gaze of a camera. For example, some buildings place television sets or screens that show people directly what the cameras see; this can both serve to scare people into behaving, and also allow them to see themselves on ‘television’, and gain a sort of self importance. An ordinary person, upon realizing they are being filmed, may experience a feeling of vanity, that they are demonstrating to the rest of the world how they have nothing to hide and are perfectly law abiding.

So what would ‘real’ panopticism look like in everyday life? It has to be clearly visible, capable of using psychological manipulation rather than brute force, and must produce fear without vanity. One answer (purely out of speculation and more akin to a near-future dystopia/utopia like 1984 and Brave New World) might be the use of undercover plainclothes police officers or security guards, blending in with the crowd, but capable of responding much more effectively against a criminal threat than the ordinary civilian. In this case, the would-be criminal sees a potential member of the police force in every able bodied person they meet on the street. One might even train people who look nothing like a typical policeman for these roles, in order to further fuel the paranoia of potential wrongdoers.

Speculating further into the dystopia/utopia idea is the ability to strategically place these people in order to flush out potential criminals, similar to the concept of bait cars used nowadays but at a larger scale. This might have the unfortunate repercussion of allowing the government to force arrests and goad vulnerable demographics into committing crimes they otherwise would not have committed, essentially an indirect form of entrapment.

Another answer would be to divide a city into separate parts, for example into quadrants, and concentrate all surveillance and undercover security in one quadrant each day. The remaining quadrants may be especially vulnerable, but remember that the prisoners who are not currently being watched can do whatever they want but are discouraged from doing so. Finally, delving further into speculation is that knowledge of which quadrant is currently being watched can be incredibly valuable and destructive, much like a prisoner knowing the truth of what happens inside the central tower.

How freedom and security can coexist (temporarily): 

For me, freedom and security, in regards to Foucault’s modern society, are incompatible. In North America today, we sacrifice freedom for security. Governments have to make the difficult choice between how far freedom of speech can stretch; where does it become harmful and a threat to the stability of our society? To what extent are we able to keep our personal data private from government eyes, even if it concerns national security? (e.g. Apple vs the FBI)

In regards to what I am discussing further on, I see freedom as the ability to express and act upon one’s inner desires and ideas. Under this definition, Criminal acts are often the result of unearned or forcefully acquired freedom, for example, robbing or shoplifting is simply the act of taking, but through means forbidden by society. Murder is the act of killing without higher level authorization. In this case, security is simply keeping freedom in check, preventing any dangerous desires from flourishing and presenting a threat to society. We still have some freedom in our day to day lives, for example,  in our own homes and among close friends and family, we can discuss topics and express opinions that may not be appropriate for outside exposure (I find it difficult to imagine that anyone would attempt to remain entirely politically correct even among private situations), but overall, in public, we are surveilled both by our fellow citizens and by cameras and the ability for anyone with a smartphone to take pictures or video-recordings of any heinous acts.

Taking it to the extreme, if we are watched all the time, even inside our very homes, we may be able to achieve maximum security and prevention of criminal activity, but we will have to conform at all times to societal demands. If the idea of surveillance extends even to our minds, the idea of the thought-crime, perhaps we would eliminate any trace of criminal or deviant behavior, but we would lose a sense of who we are, the individuality shaped by our unique flaws and ability to transgress.

On the other extreme is a state of anarchy where one is free to do whatever they want, but without any form of organized society that allows for some semblance of fairness, justice and equality. If one is free to answer all their desires, then one is free to be the recipient of another’s potentially harmful desire. There would be no complicated network of families, friends or communities, as even the concept of banding together for mutual support requires giving away some freedom since one is then obligated to share their belongings and aid one another. We would then be left alone to fend for ourselves, a Rousseau-like existence, and physical brutality would be the key to success.

Once we arrive at a middle-ground between these two extremes, one may then consider freedom and security to be part of a Foucault-like power relation. Security is initially assumed to predominate over freedom, but one can stretch the relationship to gain more freedom by sacrificing security. Joining a criminal gang would obviously cause a person to be vulnerable both to law enforcement and rival gangs, but it gives them the freedom to participate in activities previously prohibited by ordinary society. These types of deviant lifestyles are ways in which one can stretch the freedom-security relation . Another example is the fact that in dictatorships that curtail freedom of speech, people still protest, often at the risk of their own lives. Revolutions occur when freedom is stretched too far and the power relation is flipped, with security straining against the bounds of freedom and eventually restoring control.

From this, a cyclical pattern emerges, which tells me that the quest for both freedom and security is continuous; the wheel endlessly turning between left and right wing influences. We do want both of these elements, we want to strain for freedom without losing out on our security.

One possibility would be to divide into two areas. The first is filled with heavy surveillance and is a true panopticon, so that no one is willing to step outside the bounds of acceptable activities, but everybody is safe from crime and unlawful activities. The second is the opposite, with limited surveillance so that people are free to live however they wish, but with a higher crime rate. There, those who crave freedom will gravitate towards the latter area, and those who desire security will choose the former. People can move between the two areas, allowing them to choose which of the two they prefer to live in at any given moment.

But this is still a trade-off. You can either be surveilled and be safe, or have freedom but expose yourself to greater risk. It does not address the incompatibility of these two elements.

In order to achieve both freedom and security, a society must exist in which someone can do whatever they want, but no matter how despicable their actions, no crime is ever committed. One may think that this is impossible; in today’s highly globalized and interdependent society, how can any of our actions not have repercussions?

But this leads me to a conclusion that involves the idea that freedom is also more psychological than security, and an illusion of freedom can often suffice, even if it is momentary. You may be sitting in your room, perfectly law-abiding and integrated into society, but currently reading a novel, watching a film, or playing a video game designed to glorify crime. Foucault writes that novels or stories depicting criminals as heroes grew in popularity due to the brutality of punishment spectacles, but I also see that as a result of the careful discipline of modern society, the rigid division of one’s life from elementary, middle, high school, university or college, their part-time then full time jobs, the selection and pursuit of a career path, their marriage, their family and their retirement. Enthralled inside whatever forms of media, we escape the pressing momentum of time and the what-if dilemma facing every decision, instead allowing ourselves to become these fictional characters that go unpunished for their crimes and live outside the bounds of society. Why do people watch films involving mobsters or planet-wide engagements involving superheroes? Why have video games, the majority of which involving the gruesome act of murder, become one of the dominant forms of entertainment? Perhaps this is an acknowledgment by modern society that the rigid discipline discussed at length in Discipline and Punish demands an outlet, the desire to strain against the power relations governing our carefully planned roles in society without really straining it at all. Just for a moment, after we have finished reading a book, watching a movie or playing a video game, we believe we can do anything and the discipline forged within us fades, and that is enough to satisfy us.

So the short answer may tentatively be yes, we can have both freedom and security, as long as the freedom is illusory, in the form of ultimately unimpactful entertainment. This raises an interesting question, is real freedom necessary, or is an illusion of freedom sufficient. If the former is true, how can real freedom be proven? Are we not all trapped one way or the other, whether we are citizens in an urban society, or Rousseau-like natural human beings out in the wilderness? In that case should we strive for real, perfect security, and deceive ourselves with illusory, perfect freedom?


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