The Digital Panopticon

In the late 1700s, Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, idealized the perfect prison—he called this theoretical construct the “Panopticon” (All-Seeing). The panopticon was based around the idea that a centrally placed observation center, where jailers could observe all prisoners’ cells without being seen, could create a highly efficient prison system. Convicts would know that they were always under threat of being watched and, as they could never know if the watchers were currently looking at them, they would always assume that the jailers were paying attention to them. Eventually, this would reach a point where the jailer becomes irrelevant, as the prisoners have internalized the atmosphere of surveillance and are always acting as though they are under constant surveillance.

Eventually, prisons were constructed which were based around the idealized version of the panopticon. In these prisons, the guards used an observation station, placed in the center of a ring of cells, to control the prisoners. Lights were stationed on the outside of the central observation tower, both to allow the guards to see the silhouettes of the prisoners in their cells, but also to blind the prisoners from seeing whether a guard was actually watching them.

panopticon image

In recent years, we have seen the United States government implement an online surveillance program that has the potential to become the modern era’s panopticon. The NSA has the technology and, if we are to believe the recent whistleblowers, the intention to record everything that Americans and many foreigners do online. In effect, this potential for surveillance serves as a digital panopticon, where the US’s intelligence agencies are the jailers and all of us are the imprisoned.

If the NSA continues to progress towards recording everything that occurs online, it will rapidly become irrelevant whether or not they actually read peoples’ correspondences. People will assume that they are being recorded and will internalize the surveillance to the point where they will self-censor to avoid conflict with the government. People who would otherwise want to protest government action and affect social change would restrain themselves for fear of drawing attention from the ever-present (at least, to their perception) watchers. Leakers and whistleblowers would assume that no online or phone contact is safe, thus they would be less likely to attempt to risk contacting the press with their information. Even many journalists would censor themselves so as to avoid conflict with or persecution from the much more powerful government.

The true genius of the panopticon, particularly in the digital age, is that a time comes when no jailer/watcher is needed. It is functionally impossible for any intelligence agency to sift through everybody’s’ internet records and phone correspondences (there is simply too much information), but it is entirely possible to make people assume that you could target them specifically. The fear that they could be one of the people singled out will keep most of the general population in line and those that dare challenge this could be easily singled out once the general population acquiesces—in fact, these people can be made example of so as to reinforce the idea that the government is watching specific people.

If the American people sit back and let a digital panopticon be constructed by our government, we will have a nearly impossible time destroying it. The fear which can be created through the threats of constant surveillance and draconian persecution by a government (ex. using the Espionage Act to put leakers away for life) is a powerful mechanism of control that can paralyze an entire population.

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