“A Panopticon for Our Time”

| March 25, 2014
Panopticon prison model as conceptualized by computer-aided rendering.

Panopticon prison model as conceptualized by computer-aided rendering.

EDITORIAL— Washington media outlets, pundits, and policymakers have been clamoring and demanding answers in recent months from the National Security Agency (NSA) regarding its controversial PRISM program—a classified massive electronic surveillance data mining operation. Administrators associated with the clandestine program have continually noted that ‘data mining’ is a two-fold process of acquiring metadata and content from electronic communications. Through the Patriot Act, the NSA asserts they can compile metadata or electronic records of an individual’s telephone calls. Additionally, the 2008 FISA amendments purportedly allow the NSA to compile net-based content relating to an individual’s internet queries and social networking data.

To collect this information, the NSA argues it doesn’t need to obtain a judicial warrant because it is not being viewed and analyzed. The national media came to learn of the NSA’s surveillance program from former government contractor, NSA leaker, and international fugitive Edward Snowden. Snowden has since obtained temporary political asylum in the Russian Federation. Regardless of one’s stance on the Snowden leak issue, and whether or not he should be remanded to stand trial in federal court, the implications of PRISM are momentous.

On March 18, the Washington Post reported a break in the NSA spying program that the NSA has the capability of not only being able to collect call logs, but “100 percent” of foreign telephone calls, with the ability to play and rewind the recorded conversations. The debate in the NSA leak story should not be one confined to Edward Snowden, the limits of the fourth amendment, nor the balance between privacy versus security. The NSA PRISM revelations beg a much more profound question: what type of society do we want to live in?

Jeremy Bentham was an eighteenth century British philosopher renowned for his foundational work in the field of classical utilitarianism. Among his lesser known contributions to western thought is his conceptualization of the panopticon, or a structural design which allows a solitary guard to simultaneously observe all inmates of a correctional institution while, concomitantly, the prisoners are unable to discern whether or not they are being watched (see provided graphic). Although the watchman would be physically unable to observe every prisoner in the panopticon at once, the prisoners do not know who is being watched, thus they modify their behavior accordingly.

In the twentieth century, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of Bentham’s panopticon in his seminal 1975 work, Discipline and Punish. Foucault traces the roots of the modernization of punishment and the perfection of the process of correctional institutionalization and concludes that governments no longer seek to levy punishment upon the body (in the form of corporal punishment) but on the soul (through imprisonment).

To Foucault, Bentham’s panopticon represents the modernist attempt at the perfection of penal institutionalization. Each inmate is treated equally and distantly through Bentham’s architectural model. The panopticon acts—like most dogmatic modernist processes—in an almost mechanical orientation. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault poignantly notes, “The panopticon is not a dream building, but a diagram of power reduced to its ideal form. It perfects the operations of power by increasing the number of people who can be controlled, and decreasing the number needed to operate it. It gives power over people’s minds through architecture. As it can be inspected from outside, there is no danger of tyranny.”

The psychological concept of a panopticon-like surveillance state operating over society is well illustrated in George Orwell’s 1949 fiction masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell writes of a world engulfed in perpetual war, the novel’s protagonist: Winston Smith, lives in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), and is employed by the Ministry of Truth (the propaganda and information wing of ‘the Party’, the governing organization of the Oceania super-state which Airstrip One is a province of).

Winston Smith becomes disillusioned with the Party and begins to secretly despise it with hopes to eventually rebel. Smith is eventually arrested, confined to a re-education center, and—upon his indoctrination and admission of ‘love’ for the Party—executed. The Orwellian actualization of the panopticon lies in Winston Smith; he constantly is unsure of whether he is being monitored by the Party for his illegal activities (e.g. reading and writing). Until he is caught, Smith is never aware that he was being monitored by the Party throughout the course of the novel (Orwell employing the now-famous adage that ‘Big Brother is always watching’).

The NSA PRISM program is no different. It reduces power to its constituent parts—increasing the number of those, potentially, controlled and charging fewer individuals with the controlling. Foucault characterizes the panopticon as an ‘unequal gaze’ for it creates the constant possibility of observation—though the lack of evidence to discern if observation is occurring (like with the case of Orwell’s Winston Smith). Even if the NSA was required to obtain a legal warrant to access the data they collect, the unequal gaze would still persist—for the data is still compiled and sitting idle in a databank, ripe and ready for evaluation.

Debates of limits, restrictions, safety, and security all fall short; the crux of the argument lies in the inherently insidious nature of the panopticon, the idea that we could all be potentially watched and thus should modify our behavior accordingly. Surely we all want to live in a world free from unrestrained acts of terror and violence. Though, we also seek to live in a world devoid of uninhibited surveillance, where information is gathered on all of us, preempting any criminal act in the namesake of national security and defense.

Jim Clapper, director of national intelligence, and General Keith Alexander, NSA director, offer us PRISM—a twenty-first century tool in order to combat terrorism and other forms of anti-establishment militant deviancy. Though, at a closer look, beyond the technical jargon and confounding debates of the day, what the clandestine services have orchestrated is nothing new—simply an eighteenth century conceptualization actualized in twenty-first century information technology. Though, unlike Bentham and Foucault’s penal panopticon, PRISM cannot be inspected ‘from the outside’, negating the possibility of tyranny. For that, we should all be profoundly concerned.

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3 Comments on "“A Panopticon for Our Time”"

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  1. Matt Lemere says:

    Great piece, very true. NSA has gone too far. I like that someone is standing up to those guys in DC.