Wednesday, 21 September 2011

PHILOSOPHY AND THE ELECTRONIC PANOPTICON

I'LL BE POSTING A ON THIS SOON.
IYI here are 25 things that Google knows about you, and remember this list was created in 2009 BEFORE we had Google +.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Imagine for a moment that you are sitting watching a video entitled Philosophy and the Panopticon. Pretend also that the video is about the fact that electronic surveillance data is being gathered on every move you make from the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night. For the purposes of this though experiment ask yourself how you would feel if you knew that almost all the activities you engage in every day are captured by various method: surveillance cameras, records of electronic transactions and internet traffic logs. Interested parties, whether they are governmental, advertising or just curious individuals,  can gain access to views of streets you walk, the exterior of the  office building where you work and even the house where you live in. They know what you buy either on the net or in shops by electronic transition. Ask yourself how you would feel if without your knowledge or permission those who are interested can find out which movie you’ve rented, which magazines you read, which website you visit and how often you visit them.  Also what if your data is just one profile in vast electronic consumer or bureaucratic databases? What if every time you used Google for an internet search or send or receive e-mail you’d left a digital trail others can follow.
As you’ve probably already guessed this is not a farfetched scenario. It’s pretty much the world as we find it in the 21st century. And I made this video because I just signed up for Google+.  Have you? If you have, have you ever felt apprehensive about the information that is electronically collected about every move you make? Because I do, and that made me wonder what philosophy might have something to say on this state of affairs? Well, perhaps the best place to start is with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the founders of Utilitarianism which is the philosophical idea that we should aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Something that is slightly less well known is most a an unusual architectural program he advocated which he called the Panopticon.
Though it was never actually built during his lifetime, the Panopticon is Bentham’s vision for what he thought would be a scientifically-designed maximum security prison. Circular in shape, the structure features a central tower with individual cells radiating outward uniformly like spokes in a wheel. The characteristic feature of this arrangement is that there is a complete asymmetry of knowledge, and hence power: the guards in the central tower can see into any of the cells at any given time, but due to special blinds the inmates cannot see the guards, or if they are being watched at any specific moment.
Bentham was a social reformer genuinely believed that social order and control could be fostered if the prisoners internalized the sense that they were being observed by unseen eyes. He also believed that the idea behind the Panopticon could be utilized in schools, factories, and hospitals. It’s a certainty that he could never have imagined the uses his idea is now being put to in the form of internet surveillance. Bentham was serious when he claimed that “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instructions diffused … all [brought about] by a simple idea in Architecture.” Not everyone was as optimistic as Benthan. When Bentham’s contemporary Edmund Burke saw the plans for the Panopticon he called it “a spider in the web.”
The postmodernist philosopher, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), contended that the nature of the oneway surveillance in the Panopticon – what he referred to as the gaze – resulted in an asymmetry of knowledge, and therefore of power. Ultimately, Foucault argued, the omniscient surveillance created conditions whereby the observed themselves became instruments of their own suppression. So whereas Bentham viewed his Panopticon as a technology for reforming men, Foucault saw a method for creating “docile bodies.” Foucault writes that the major function of the Panopticon is:
To induce a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual use unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who uses it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer.
For Foucault who died in 1984, the Panopticon was the result of the misuse of power permeated modern institutions from governments to corporations. With the accelerated use of digital surveillance technologies within modern democratic states, are we in danger of creating an ‘electronic Panopticon’? And would this necessarily be a bad thing? Jeremy Bentham would probably say no. As a Utilitarian who once famously described civil and natural rights as “nonsense on stilts, “Bentham might argue that “the greatest good for the greatest number” outweighed quaint notions about human dignity. If the Panopticon principle can guarantee peace, order, and stability in social affairs and unlike Orwell’s nightmarish vision of ‘Big Brother’ the modern surveillance state is turning out a lot more like an electronically-monitored ‘consumer paradise’ or ‘Disneyworld’ where “people are seduced into conformity,” not forced. If so, perhaps there is a sense in which each of us – in so far as we approve of and acquiesce in the continued construction of the surveillance state will be soon be a society of social
Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon principle, on the other hand, appears to assume some sort of conception of human nature and human dignity. This is surprising from a philosopher associated with post-modernism. But Foucault’s analysis and criticism of the Panopticon principle can remind us of all we stand to lose in the surveillance state. That constant surveillance tends to promote self-censorship, breeding conformity not creativity. That eliminating deviancy can also mean eliminating eccentricity and the exceptional. And that though the surveillance state promises to answer so many of our needs there is at least one need it cannot answer – the need to be left alone in peace to think and act as we desire.

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