Essay Sample on Panopticon and Modern Surveillance

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Carnegie Mellon University
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Surveillance is made possible by modern technology. However, a certain social theory provides the framework for controlling this surveillance and making it meaningful. As a segment of his idea for rational social control, a utilitarian theorist called Jeremy Bentham created an architectural device known as Panopticon. As a piece of architecture, this device allows a guard to watch over the occupants of a certain building without them knowing that they are being watched. The devices main idea was modified in the second half of the 20th century into a way of conducting surveillance within disciplinarian societies. This essay discusses whether or not the Panopticon still helps humanity understand modern surveillance.

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Bentham was of the opinion that humans are inherently inclined to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort. His theory was that it is what is pleasurable and uncomfortable that defines good and evil. An individual believes that, for every one of his or her action, a reaction will occur from others. With this in mind, the resultant principle is for the individual not to act in a manner that triggers a detrimental or negative reaction towards him or her from others. This theory is then applied to crime. A person cannot commit an offence whereby he or she would suffer more discomfort from the act that the likely pleasure derived from it. To induce desired behavior while preventing the undesired, one way the society would apply this theory is by coming up with strict laws and punishments if they are violated. All in all, Bentham had other ideas. He felt that legislation should be put in place to facilitate the greatest level of happiness to the biggest number of individuals. Thus, pain inflicted during punishment has to be proportional to the happiness that it induced.

It was the above-mentioned argument that spurred Bentham to devise the Panopticon. Initially, the device was a worldwide institution based on a Russian factory design aimed at reducing the number of supervisors watching over workers. Bentham then proposed that the design be modified for correction facilities, mental institutions, schools and workhouses. Panopticons underlying principle involved the complete and constant surveillance of workers, inmates, patients or students. All in all, Bentham felt that it was possible to successfully adopt this approach into any environment that required a certain degree of supervision. The design that Bentham had in mind was made up of a central watch tower covered in glass while also furnished using blind made of food. The tower was surrounded by a series of rooms or cells. With such a setup, the guard in the watchtower would have the ability to check out every movement of all those inside the cells at a go.

For the Panopticon system to be effective, there has to be uncertainty. Its design made sure that the people under surveillance cannot see those observing them. They have no way of knowing whether or not they are being surveyed at any given time, although they may suspect that someone is watching them. In addition, they would not know when no one is watching their every move. The psychological aim of this system is that the individuals under surveillance would think that the only way not to get caught doing something bad is by following all the rules. Hence, every person would become his or her own overseer. The perception that an all-seeing eye is present would trigger a high level of self-policing. It is worth looking at what would happen if this system is linked to the pleasure-discomfort principle mentioned above. Should that happen, then discomfort has become self-generated. An individual under surveillance is always anxious that is he or she commits a crime, it will be found out. Failure to follow rules and regulations means inner discomfort and there is nothing to get by violating the law. In addition, an individual would experience pleasure due to the psychological security of being aware that he or she has not violated any rules.

According to Bentham, the principles contained in the Panopticon system could be applied in any sphere that needed a certain degree of regulation. In one way or another, these principles can be found in contemporary forms of surveillance like CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras. Despite the fact that they are far more superior to surveillance during Benthams time in terms of technology, the principle factor has not changed much. Today, a similar objective is still present-which is to discourage people from committing crime via the ever-present threat of surveillance as well as the consequences of being found out.

The design of modern-day shopping malls seems to have been influenced by Panopticism. They are made up of large open spaces with lots of light. Also, they are designed in such a manner that they facilitate safety and excellent visibility. Often, there are no tiny walkways, with floors being made of a gallery design in a way that any person can see those beneath without having to move downstairs. Additionally, exposed escalators are most of the time covered using glass. Such cover is a text-book example of the Panopticism as any incidences taking place in the escalators would otherwise go unnoticed for a while due to lack of visibility. Modern designs of shopping malls also have elements of consumer panopticism, although the average shopper may not be aware that he or she is participating. This is whereby consumers keep an eye on each other and watch one anothers backs. In addition to the security staff and surveillance cameras, shoppers are also on the lookout. Such an action is among those that are now internalized as a fundamental part of the modern society.

In 1975, a French philosopher called Michel Foucault renewed interest in the Panopticon in his book titled Discipline and Punish. He used it to explore the link between systems of social control and individuals within a disciplinary situation. In his own opinion, knowledge and power was gotten from observing others. panopticon paved the way for a move to a disciplinary power whereby all movements were put under surveillance and every event recorded. Arguably, such a system of control has been assisted in human beings own culture by new advancements in technology that make it possible for federal agencies to track people behavior and movement. This tracking is achieved through platforms such as telephones, the internet, social security numbers, cell phones, ATMs, the census, credit and debit cards, as well as the ever-rising number of CCTV cameras in public places.

Foucault talks of a culture whereby the panoptic surveillance model has been applied as a principle in social organization. It influences disparate things such as institutions of higher learning and urban planning that is organized on a grid structure to discourage placement while also facilitating concealment. The panopticon happens to be polyvalent with respect to its applications. It plays the role of reforming prisoners, instructing pupils and students, treating patients, supervising workers, confining the mentally handicapped, and also putting idlers and beggars to work. Whenever there is a situation involving a multiplicity of people on whom a certain form of behavior or task must be imposed, it is advisable to use the panoptic system.

Some of the notable effects of the panopticon system include the internalization of laws, guidelines, rules and regulations. As humans naturalize rules, it can be said that the society becomes reluctant to question unfair laws. When Foucault was making this statement about conformity, he had Nazi Germany in mind. All in all, studies of the American society show that people in the United States are just as eager to do what authorities say even if it means committing violent acts to innocent subjects. Another effect involves conduction of rehabilitation as opposed to unusual and cruel forms of punishment. This effect was put in place following outcries in the 19th century over the inhumane manner in which prisoners and mentally challenged people were being treated. However, Foucault is skeptical of what is now being considered as normal since it involves maintenance of the status quo on the private aspects of human lives.

Panopticonism has led to spying into ever-more private facet of peoples lives, assisted by advances in surveillance technology. The system has also brought about an information society. Given the huge amounts of surveillance and resultant data-gathering leads, challenges will emerge on how information will be gathered and retrieved. It seems that the system necessitated the invention of computers that allows people to handle inflow of huge amounts of information.

A white collar labor force is needed to come up with ways of retrieving information gotten from surveillance and its storage. Thus, panopticonism has triggered a new form of bureaucracy. Formation of such a labor force breeds a new type of humans since it converts individuals into some kind of robots whose role is to handle paperwork and statistics. There is also some extra efficiency. More emphasis is put on the most effective ways of organizing the labor force and information to bring about maximum yield as well as dissemination of more data, even if all this comes at the expense of injustice or exploitation. Specialization can also be said to be among the effects of panopticonism. The workforce crew of any organization is divided into specialized fields to the extent that so-called experts are relied upon to complete tasks that initially had been common knowledge or shared among different individuals.

The Panopticon does help understand modern surveillance in a number of ways. Its principle involves self-inspection; something that can be done using CCTV. A round building is not needed for this to happen. To monitor electronic surveillance and communication from a central location applies panoptic principles. The idea that Jeremy Bentham had in mind was that certain activities are best carried out if the individuals doing them are under supervision. In a way, the Panopticons watchtower was a pre-cursor to CCTV circuits and other cameras attached to buildings. They are intentionally visible machines in possession of human-like eyes that are hidden from view. The Panopticon and CCTV systems may have several obvious things in common. A question occurs as to what happens in the world of information capture and digital surveillance. Can people in the modern world be compared to the subjects Bentham mentioned as they use their mobile devices?

Unlike the case of the Panopticon, people who are subject to modern surveillance have no idea that they are being watched. It is worth bearing in mind the corrective purposes of Benthams device when looking at it as metaphor for contemporary surveillance. Consideration of the device as a metaphor declines when modern surveillance features are seen to be effectively data-driven and digital. This means these features do not match with the watchtower concept. Scholars today may wonder whether modern surveillance is aimed at conducting the same political exercise as Benthams device. If people are not aware that they are being watched, would they be considered to be normalized the same way the panopticon was meant to ensure the right behavior?

How inmates were exposed asymmetrically in Benthams panopticon is quite different from the way government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) conducts their surveillance. For the case of Benthams building, the inmates were always aware that they were under a watchful eye-with the threat of constant watch being the entire point. On the other hand, surveillance carried out by agencies via the internet in totally invisible. There is...

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