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Post-panoptic society.

Post-panoptic society.

Are we living in a post-panoptic society? Discuss in relation to contemporary surveillance practices and their links to the discipline or control society

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously requested in their will that his entire body be dissected and set on public display. This came to pass, and his skeleton now sits in a glass case at University College London, adorned with a wax head, waistcoat and jacket and sat on a wooden stool, staring out at students from its glass case.

Bentham was viewed as the founder of utilitarianism and a major endorse of your divorce of cathedral and state, liberty of phrase and personal legitimate rights. And now, from beyond the grave, his cadaver contains a webcam that records the movements of its spectators and broadcasts them live online, part of UCL’s PanoptiCam project which tests, amonst other things, surveillance algorithms. As I write this, a young couple are walking across the corridor, his hand pressed against the small of her back.

Prof Melissa Terras, director from the UCL Centre for Electronic Humanities, shows me that the camera is utilized to discover the easiest way “to determine and count up each person in still graphics, precisely.” UCL hope it will spark talk around contemporary surveillance, nevertheless it isn’t a coincidence that this webcam is attached to Bentham’s container. The PanoptiCam project is a pun on the “panopticon”, a type of institutional building that has long dominated Bentham’s legacy.

The fundamental set up of Bentham’s panopticon could this be: you will discover a central tower in the middle of cellular material. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.

“The panopticon wasn’t originally Bentham’s thought. It was his brother’s,” says Philip Schofield, professor of the History of Legal and Political Thought and Director of the Bentham Project at UCL.

“His buddy Samuel was operating in Russia around the estate in Krichev and he experienced a relatively unskilled labor force, so he sat himself in the middle of this manufacturer and organized his staff within a circle around his key work desk so he could monitor what everyone was undertaking.”

Bentham traveled to pay a visit to his buddy in the past due 1780s, found what he was performing, and determined the centralised set up might be applied to all kinds of diverse situations – not merely prisons but factories, schools and hospitals.

Bentham managed to influence the excellent minister, William Pitt younger, to fund a panopticon National Penitentiary, but a flow of difficulties eventually designed the venture was deserted. Bentham never saw a panopticon built during his lifetime. A number of prisons have since incorporated panopticon elements into their design but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the closest thing to a panopticon prison was built – the Presidio Modelo complex in Cuba, infamous for corruption and cruelty, now abandoned.

‘The principle is core inspection’ French philosopher Michel Foucault revitalised interest in the panopticon in their 1975 guide Self-control and Penalize. Foucault used the panopticon as a way to illustrate the proclivity of disciplinary societies subjugate its citizens.

He explains the prisoner of any panopticon for being with the receiving end of asymmetrical monitoring: “He is noted, but he does not see he or she is a physical object of information, by no means an issue in connection.”

As a consequence, the inmate polices himself for fear of punishment.

“The concept is central inspection,” Schofield tells me. “You can do central inspection by CCTV. You don’t need a round building to do it. Monitoring electronic communications from a central location, that is panoptic. The real heart of Bentham’s panoptic idea is that there are certain activities which are better conducted when they are supervised.”

In many ways, the watchtower in the middle of your panopticon is a precursor on the cameras fastened to our own complexes – purposely visible machines with human eyeballs concealed from see.

The parallels between your panopticon and CCTV can be obvious, but what goes on whenever you take on the industry of electronic digital surveillance and information capture? Are we still “objects of information” as we swipe between cells on our smartphone screens?

Jake Goldenfein, specialist at the Center for Multimedia and Communications Legislation, College of Melbourne, informs me it’s important to recall the remedial purpose of Bentham’s panopticon when thinking about it as a metaphor for contemporary surveillance.

“The meaning inside the panopticon as being a metaphor actually actually starts to wither whenever we start considering whether present day-day kinds of visuality (effectively electrical and details-operated) are related for that primary tower strategy. For example, whether this type of visuality is as asymmetrical, and – I think more importantly – being co-opted for the same political exercise. Does the fact that we don’t know we’re being watched mean we are being normalised in the way the panopticon was intended to correct behaviour? ”

As Goldenfein shows, the asymmetrical visibility of inmates in Bentham’s constructing is of your distinct order to how authorities physiques like GCHQ conduct monitoring. In the panopticon the occupants are constantly aware of the threat of being watched – this is the whole point – but state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no dead-eye lens staring at you every time you enter a URL.

It wasn’t until the Snowden leakages that this range of NSA and GCHQ surgical procedures grew to be recognized. This arguably makes the system more panoptic post-Snowden, when we are aware of it, but it hasn’t been the official rhetoric. The original emphasis, and still the emphasis today, hasn’t been on correcting behaviour but on providing security, namely from terrorists.


Another important distinction may be the general intangibility of web data monitoring. With Bentham’s panopticon, and to some extent CCTV, there is a physical sense of exposure in the face of authority.

In the exclusive room of my personal surfing around I truly do not sense uncovered – I do not believe that my system of data is under security because I have no idea where that system starts or stops. We live so much of our lives online, share so much data, but feel nowhere near as much attachment for our data as we do for our bodies. Without physical ownership and without an explicit sense of exposure I do not normalise my actions. If anything, the supposed anonymity of the internet means I do the opposite.

My information, nevertheless, is under security, not only by my govt but additionally by corporations which make huge quantities of cash capitalising on it. Not only that, but the amount of data on offer to governments and corporations is about to go through the roof, and as it does the panopticon may emerge as a model once more. Why? Because our bodies are about to be brought back into the mix.