The Theory of Surveillance: The Panopticon and the Stainless Steel Rat

As we residents of Massachusetts gambol heedlessly downward from the Mountains of Liberty toward the Swamps of Oppression, let’s take a brief breather to consider a more general commentary on surveillance.

Philosophical examinations of governmental surveillance powers center on eighteenth-century founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and twentieth-century philosopher Michel Foucault. The key concept used to inform their thinking is Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon:

The Panopticon: the ideal prison
According to Bentham, the ideal prison

The Panopticon was a prison with the cells in the outside circle and the guard tower in the center. Each prisoner was, at all times, perfectly visible to the guards. The guards were invisible to the prisoners, so prisoners had to assume that they were being permanently watched.

To Bentham, the apostle of efficiency, a better system of surveillance could hardly be imagined.

Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!

No prisoner could be forgotten; under observation, each prisoner could be reformed, and would refrain from the criminality that he had formerly practiced. Note that of course, for Bentham, the categories of “poor” and “criminal” bled easily into one another. In Bentham’s schema the prisoners are not equal to the guards; being unobserved by design, no mechanism exists for watching them.

To Foucault, the Panopticon was a metaphor for rendering all people orderly, measurable, and governable both by time and by those in power. He recognized (in Surveiller et punir, 1975) that the process of imposing that order automatically defined as “delinquents” all those who resisted the process. (People may, of course, resist surveillance because they are hiding criminal activity; but they may also resist it because they are temperamentally prone to resist intrusion.)

It was a tactic of anti-desertion, anti-vagabondage, anti-concentration. Its aim was to establish presences and absences, to know where and how to locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of the individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculate its qualities or merits. It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering and using. Discipline [surveiller] organizes an analytical space. [p. 139, Kindle edition]

Can there be any better expression of the purpose of today’s surveillance state? Today’s law enforcement agencies have the kind of power that the Legalists of old China gave to the Son of Heaven alone; and by and large, it’s a power that we ourselves have given them, by being willing to use tools that are not legally or technologically secure against intrusion.

Foucault, writing just as the personal computer was being invented, could not have imagined what would ensue. Our lives, here in 2013, are tracked and watched and marked in ways unimaginable to earlier generations. This is especially true for American children, who are often barely allowed unobserved solitude before they hit their teens. We are entering an era where we must render full account for each foolish word written online from the age of thirteen onward; where our whole characters must be remade as consistent, positive, marketable, in order to be allowed to participate fully in society. Indeed, that process begins with the testing and re-testing of students and the fevered process of college admissions. We allow ourselves to be measured, which in turn allows us to be found unworthy; and that makes us vulnerable to the law enforcement agencies whose art it is to sort humanity into the worthy and the unworthy. The mass collection of data by the government does not mean that we are all being watched; it does mean, however, that on the slightest of pretexts, any of us can be subjected to the arbitrary prosecutorial powers of the American justice system, and made an example of for others.

What makes life easiest for the workers in the deep state is perfect privacy for them, through the exercise of legal doctrines such as the state secrets privilege and the ritual quotation of “national security”; coupled with perfect transparency for everyone else, and justified by our fear of those among us who harbor terroristic thoughts. In other words, they act as the guards of the Panopticon still. The NYPD officers who testify that they had quotas of five stop-and-frisks a month to make show us the easy, bureaucratic way of it: they, like the rest of us, have to produce and to be measured in order to be deemed worthy, and by their participation deem others unworthy.

The sad part for a liberal such as myself to recognize is that the same impulse that motivates liberal programs also motivates the surveillance state. It’s the desire to know things about people, to interview, measure and find out, so that social problems can be solved and known to have been solved. A data-heavy government solves problems and saves lives more efficiently than one that limits itself. And yet, I have come to recognize that there was wisdom in the Founders choosing a self-limiting government anyway. I want to see a state that consciously limits what it knows or wishes to know, even if that limiting comes at a cost. I have come to recognize that only by allowing space for criminals can we also allow space for the unruly, the untracked, the creative, and the dissident. We should have more discussion about the fact that the modern, data-heavy surveillance state, sometime without meaning to, and sometimes simply to fill quotas, reduces that space to a ravelled thread.

To sound us out, let’s have something from the great and recently-deceased science-fiction writer Harry Harrison:

We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment. A Stainless Steel Rat is Born (1985)


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