watchmen of the panopticon

Panopticon _ Vicious Circle 7_ _ Belgrado

The social theorist and founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham is responsible for inventing the panopticon, an institution in which the inmates (the criminal, the insane, or both) can be observed by a single watchman without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being watched. “Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.” (Wikipedia). The word Panopticon is derived from Panoptes, a hundred-eyed giant in Greek mythology. 

I will quote further from the Wikipedia article using red italic text:(

“Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Elsewhere, in a letter, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. 

Am I correct in seeing connections between the system designed by Bentham and the frightening revelations of Edward Snowden? Mass-surveillance, Google’s complicity in the mining and selling-on of private data, the recent acknowledgement by Samsung that they have face recognition cameras and voice recognition microphones built into their SmartTv’s (see point to the possibility of a kind of global panopticon. There is warning enough in the dystopian worlds of Orwell and Huxley (and others like Zamyatin’s “We”) of course; but is fiction becoming reality?

And what if “the watchmen” arm themselves against us?

The US military -allegedly with the assistance of the CIA, use “Reaper” and “Predator” drones to identify and eliminate human targets with reasonable precision anywhere in the world. Fortunately, for now, Afghanistan is the theatre of war and drones deliver entertaining video footage for the rest of us.

For more about drone warfare, see

“Life as a drone operator: ‘Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?’  -In a secluded room at an airbase in Nevada, young men hold the power of life and death over people thousands of miles away. Former servicemen tell their story.



But I digress.- Let us return to our Panopticon:

Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. Surveillance by cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom…  have added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public. Similarly, critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panoptic form of observation. ISPs are able to track users’ activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.

Derrick Jensen and Gerge Draffan’s 2004 book, ‘Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control’ seeks to demonstrate how our society, by techniques like the use of biometric passports to identity chips in consumer goods, from nanoparticle weapons to body-enhancing and mind-altering drugs for soldiers, is being pushed towards a panopticon-like state.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but let us hope that very strangeness doesn’t include Bentham’s vision on a global scale. If the whole world becomes Bentham’s “mill for grinding rogues”, then who will decide who the rogues are? And who will watch the watchmen of the Panopticon?

“What makes the all-encompassing control of our lives so dangerous is not that we lose our privacy and all our intimate secrets are exposed to the view of the Big Brother. There is no state agency that is able to exert such control—not because they don’t know enough, but because they know too much. The sheer size of data is too large, and in spite of all intricate programs for detecting suspicious messages, computers which register billions of data are too stupid to interpret and evaluate them properly, yielding ridiculous and unnecessary mistakes whereby innocent bystanders are listed as potential terrorists—and this makes state control of our communications even more dangerous. Without knowing why, without doing anything illegal, we can all of a sudden find ourselves on a list of potential terrorists. Recall the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he doesn’t want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I am afraid that if I go, there will be chaos, everything will fall apart—but I am even more afraid to discover that, if I go, things will just go on as normal without me, a proof that I am not really needed!” Something similar can be said about the state control of our communications: We should fear that we have no secrets, that secret state agencies know everything, but we should fear even more that they fail in this endeavor.

“We need more Mannings and Snowdens—in China, in Russia, everywhere. There are states much more oppressive than the United States—just imagine what would have happened to someone like Manning in a Russian or Chinese court (in all probability there would be no public trial!) However, one should not exaggerate the softness of the United States. True, the United States doesn’t treat prisoners as brutally as China or Russia—because of their technological priority, they simply do not need the openly brutal approach (which they are more than ready to apply when it is needed)—the invisible digital control can do well enough. In this sense, the United States is even more dangerous than China insofar as their measures of control are not perceived as such, while Chinese brutality is openly displayed.

One thought on “watchmen of the panopticon

  1. “One of the strengths of such a universal Panopticon is that the perils against which it protects are not all imaginary. The atrocity exhibitions that are on display in the media are not just fantasies. The most savage wars rage unabated; random violence can happen anywhere at any time. With the rapid evolution of techniques of cyber-attack, every modern amenity is vulnerable to sudden disruption. To assume that the inmates yearn to escape the universal Panopticon would be rash. Their worst fear may be of being forced to leave.”
    John N. Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom


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