It’s been 10 years since I first read Foucault. I was a lowly mature-age undergraduate who was blissfully unaware of any deeper geopolitical agendas operating across the planet. Back then Foucault was torturous reading. Highbrow academic-speak at it’s worst. However I’ve recently had the urge to re-visit this flowery Foucauldian philosophy. Since waking up to the real geopolitical agenda behind the surveillance state, Mr Foucault’s power/knowledge thesis has taken on a whole new dimension for me. It now smacks me over the back of my head with sirens screaming “Are you paying attention????“. In particular I’ve been drawn back to his book Discipline and Punish where he introduced me to the Panopticon. If you don’t know what the Panopticon is, it is a concept invented by 18th Century Philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It takes the form of a circular prison with cells arranged around a central observation tower, from which prisoners could at all times be seen. A further explanation can be found here. The most insidious aspect of this design is that each cell has a window on the outside creating a backlighting effect to the central observer, meaning that every movement in every cell is immediately discernible to the watcher. In Foucault’s words the Panopticon is “a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power” because “he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power.”
Clearly the important words here are “…and who knows it” because it suggests that it’s the knowledge of surveillance that leads to the self-regulation of behaviour.
Bentham’s Panopticon was not a real building. Some argue that Bentham devised the idea after seeing how his brother, Samuel, arranged his factory in Russia. However in Bentham’s writings the Panopticon was never meant to describe a real building. It was an intellectual concept; a metaphor. Again, in the words of Foucault, “…the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form…it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use“. In other words, what Bentham was describing was a method of enforcing prescribed behaviour in a population, as well as ensuring the absence of proscribed or prohibited behaviour by making the population believe that they are being watched. “The Panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense” because the subject becomes their own enforcer. Bentham himself stated it clearly: that the Panopticon is a way of obtaining from power, “a great and new instrument of government“. Amazing awareness and insight from 225 years in the distant past. Most people today have nowhere near that level of insight. In fact most people today are falling for ever-increasing levels of Panopticism even though the writings of Bentham and Foucault, like George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, forewarned us of this impending tyranny.
A recent study conducted by Dr Elizabeth Stoycheff of Wayne State University in the US state of Michigan has shown that mass surveillance is indeed having a ‘chilling effect’ by silencing dissent and minority opinions. See more here and here. The study had two main conclusions. Firstly, that mass surveillance silences minority opinions and therefore it “may enable a domineering, majority opinion to take control of online deliberative spaces, thus negating deliberation“. You’ve probably experienced this in online forums such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube when paid “shills” and “trolls” hijack the comments section and are scathing of any opinions that are even remotely anti-establishment or pro-freedom. Those who are assertive about their dissenting beliefs are attacked and humiliated, with the obligatory ad hominem being a dead giveaway that you are being targeted by a paid troll. With most people self-censoring and afraid to voice their dissenting opinions, it becomes easy to manufacture majority opinions online in this way. The second major finding of the study was that those participants who shared the “nothing to hide” belief – those who tended to support mass surveillance as necessary for national security – were the most likely to silence their minority opinions. On this finding Stoycheff commented that “online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one’s actions. It’s about a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image, in private, and now, [online]“.
Such self-censorship for the greater good has been a significant achievement of the surveillance state to the extent that people now subvert their true beliefs and routinely plead for more government intrusion. We’ve been brain-washed and bullied by concepts such as “political correctness” (also known as “Cultural Marxism” or “Linguistic Fascism”), the “War on Terror” and “Climate Change” into believing that we must concur with the majority opinion. Most importantly, we’ve learned that we must not question the majority opinion because there is a looming threat that is greater than any individual’s right to privacy, right to freedom of speech, and increasingly, their right to freedom of thought. If we have a dissenting opinion or, God forbid, an original thought on a topic, we must bury it or face a barrage of criticism from the vocal majority. The media have been complicit in this endeavour by bombarding us with fear-laden topics and imagery supporting the majority opinion, to the extent that we now plead for our freedoms to be taken in exchange for some ‘justice’ or relief from the perceived threat. The Panama Papers scandal is a perfect example of this. People will soon agree for their financial freedom to be curtailed by, for example, the introduction of a global tax grid, in order to reduce the ‘threat’ of tax evasion. See my article on this here.
Mr Bentham would turn in his grave. His metaphor is now writ large. Globally. Empowering the state to take your privacy and freedom carries a far greater risk than any actual threat to security. Handing over your liberty in exchange for perceived security is voluntarily adding an extra dimension to Bentham’s Panopticon. In the modern Panopticon not only are we obeying the rules of surveillance and accepting the accompanying loss of freedom, but by self-censoring for the ‘greater good’ we are also saying “Take my individuality; my essence as a person. Take the unique gift I bring to this world because I am worthless. The collective is more important than me and my perspective“.
Well I beg to differ. It is the diversity of the collective that gives it depth and worth. Just as the variety of nationalities and cultures is what gives our planet such richness and beauty, it’s people who make the collective what it is. Yes, individuals. With their pesky tendency to have their own perspectives. The onslaught of political correctness, self-imposed censorship and enslavement to majority opinion is not a healthy future for individuality and freedom. Jeremy Bentham first alerted us to such threats in 1791. Aldous Huxley spoke of it in 1932, George Orwell in 1949 and Ray Bradbury in 1953. Michel Foucault continued to write about power and liberty in the 1970s and 80s. Currently many people from many sectors are screaming at the top of their voices about democracy, privacy, freedom of speech, surveillance, censorship and other issues central to liberty but their efforts are largely falling on deaf ears. I truly hope more people wake up before it is too late.
For a humorous look at Facebook surveillance see this spoof here.