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The Panopticon (and our digital surveillance society)

The Panopticon (and our digital surveillance society)

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Published by Ian Thorpe
Have you ever had the feeling you are being watched, you are under the surveillance of unseen watchers, your every move is being tracked, they even know your thoughts? Welcome to the Panopticon. Digital technology makes possible the nightmare world envisaged by well meaning but misguided eighteenth century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham
Have you ever had the feeling you are being watched, you are under the surveillance of unseen watchers, your every move is being tracked, they even know your thoughts? Welcome to the Panopticon. Digital technology makes possible the nightmare world envisaged by well meaning but misguided eighteenth century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham

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Published by: Ian Thorpe on Dec 16, 2012
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03/29/2014

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The Panopticon – by Ian R Thorpe
We live in a surveillance society. We are watched every day by cameras in our towns and along main roads, details of our financial transactions and social interactions via the internet are saved to databases and analysed by software to build a picture of our lifestyle, habits, preferences and  peccadilloes which will be available to those willing to pay. The government through its obsession with form filling and a matrix of cross indexed references knows everything about our health, career  progress, what car we drives, whether we have ever been late paying out taxes.The Panopticon can be reinterpreted as a world envisaged by many writers, George Orwell in his novel !"#, written in !#" predicted not only a totalitarian government obsessed with power and control but an agency called The Thought Police whose function was to identify people whose minds might be straying $off % message&, by 'ldous (uxley in )rave *ew World and by the post+modern philosopher ichel -oucault in his book $iscipline and Punish& which introduced to fiction the idea of The Watchers, borrowed perhaps from a middle eastern text of the early )iblical era, The )ook of /noch. 0 /noch 1 The Watchers2. /noch, though thought to be the earliest text of the people we now call (ebrews, is not part of The Old Testament. 'lthough not included in the modern )ible, /noch is referred to in /3ekiel, 4ude and several other )iblical books and very obviously had a great influence on The 'pocalypse of 5t. 4ohn the ivine 0aka 6evelations2.
 
7learly however, the worlds envisioned by those books is made possible by modern digital technology.-oucault8s image of the Panopticon reflected his belief that our modern social order is based on our love of technical rationality. The Panopticon embodies the modern love of surveillance and control. The Panopticon is a system 0not necessarily a tower as is often imagined, think of it as a metaphorical tower although it may well be a subterranean computer centre. 9ts purpose was to keep the sub:ect under continual observation and thus through the unarticulated threat of sanction would  pressure sub:ect into a regime of strict self discipline.The Panopticon, was first conceived and designed by the /nglish philosopher and social reformer 4eremy )entham in ;!. )entham was founder of the <tilitarian movement in  philosophy
 
, his ideas being built around the goal of achieving $the greatest good of the greatest number.& (e described his idea of The Panopticon as the $ideal& prison for modern times. 9t consisted of a central observation tower with an encircling building containing prison cells. The observers in the tower could see everybody in the cells all of the time, but the people in the cells could not see the observers, who were hidden from sight in the tower, which was darkened.$orals reformed % health preserved % industry invigorated, instruction diffused % public  burthens lightened % /conomy seated, as it were, upon a rock % the gordian knot of the Poor+=aws are not cut, but untied % all by a simple idea in 'rchitecture>& the thinker proclaimed. $' building circular? The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference@The officers in the centre. )y  blinds and other contrivances, the 9nspectors concealed? from the observation of the prisoners1 hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence@The whole circuit reviewable with little, or? without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.& 0from1 Proposal for a *ew and =ess /xpensive mode of /mploying and 6eforming 7onvicts 04eremy )entham, =ondon, ;!"24eremy )entham8s ideas on how the greatest greatest good of the greatest number principle might be achieved were not always thoroughly thought through. 9n common with many moral and social philosophers, his ideas looked great on paper but in practical terms were unworkable. )entham spent much of his time and fortune on designs for the Panopticon. The Panopticon 0&all+seeing&2 was a prison 0but might be thought of in terms of a dystopian society like those depicted in
 
Orwell8s !"#, -ran3 Aafka8s The Trial, 'ldous (uxley8s )rave *ew World, Terry Gilliam8s film )ra3il or 'nthony )urgess8s ' 7lockwork Orange. The idea was to allow constant and total surveillance of the inmates by their supervisors. )entham8s intention was humanitarianB but the  penal system was perhaps not the best place to start putting his utilitarian philosophies into practice.The greatest happiness principle, if we take )entham8s ideas to their conclusion, dictates the construction, not of prisons, but the secular eCuivalent of (eaven+on+/arth. When harnessed to  biotechnology 
 
this <topian+sounding vision is feasible % albeit implausible. Det the ideological obstacles to global happiness may prove greater than the practical challenges1 the contemporary utilitarian pro:ect needs more visually compelling symbols than an image of discipline and  punishment. On utilitarian grounds, the Panopticon is perhaps best forgotten.-oucault felt )entham8s Panopticon captured not the highest ideal of the <tilitarian movement  but the essence of the modern age1 the powerless are exposed to the relentless ga3e of the powerful. The powerless are coerced to internali3e and act in accordance with the standards and expectations of the powerful, without the powerful actually have to touch or come in contact with the powerless 0forget all the high minded windbaggery of lefties, the elite might talk of fairness and eCuality but truly despise the masses2. -urthermore, at any given moment the powerless people do not actually know whether or not they are being actively watched and so can never let down their guard. They must must always act in accordance with the expectations of the powerful. 9n other words, vigilance supplants torture. The powerful don8t have to touch you nor be seen by you in order to exert their  power over you.9n government propaganda, in education, news media, most mainstream literature, films, television we are taught to admire and trust this particular small group of elite people, since only they are noble enough, selfless enough, intelligent enough to $save and protect& us from our ignorance and stupidity. 9t is the blueprint for domination followed by every fascistic regime since ancient /gypt, )abylon and 5umeria. <nderstanding of how it works throws light on much of the apparent insanity going on today. 9ronically the <tilitarians, along with romantics, 7hartists, existentialists and other social and philosophical movements of the era known as $The /nlightenment& fought for and won for the masses the right to education.5uddenly, about half way through the twentieth century, the elites found that the educated  proletariat were asking a lot of difficult Cuestions and no longer placed a childlike trust in elitists to ensure that $all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.& 0ore on that in a later article2 The outcome of allowing the masses to escape from the darkness threatened the superiority of the

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