Welcome To the Panopticon

for release 01-21-10
Dallas, Texas
by Lightning Rod

In the late 18th century, an English dandy named Jeremy Bentham concocted the notion of the Panopticon. The idea rests on the principle that people are easier to control when they are being watched. Since it is not practical to watch every person all of the time, the next best thing is if they think that you are watching them or could be watching them all of the time. It’s the old Santa Claus con. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.

What we know as our modern penitentiary was based on Bentham’s theory. The Panopticon was conceived as an architectural design for a prison, yes the perfect prison, where the fewest number of guards or observers could control the greatest number of inmates. It usually involves a central cage with cells or blocks radiating from it. A guard in the cage could see what was going on in any of the cells. In the event of trouble, help could be quickly dispatched, but also the inmates were on best behavior because they assumed that they were always being watched.

Jeremy Bentham penned the idea of the Panopticon in 1787, the same year that our Constitution was signed. This is slightly ironic because one document described the advantages of mass surveillance while the other tried to create protections against it.

A great deal about a nation or a society can be learned by observing the percentage of its population that is being held prisoner or being otherwise supervised by the State. Usually affluent societies are the ones to avail themselves of this luxury. It is expensive to maintain prisons and police. When Bentham invented the Panopticon, it was a labor and money saving device. It was state-of-the-art social technology, tether the wild beast with the leash of his own paranoia.

The Panopticon has come a long way in a couple of hundred years. The principle has been refined far beyond the old-fashioned bricks and mortar prisons to a single vast virtual prison. Anyone who has a cell phone might as well have a cell in this prison. We live in a new Panopticon where we assume that we are being observed every time we swipe a credit card or send an email or make a phone call. We can’t get anywhere near money without being videotaped.

The technology is now available to accomplish a much more efficient Panopticon than Bentham ever imagined. We assume that every traffic light has eyes. Our world bristles with cameras and recorders. Every teenager today is better equipped to be a spy than 007 was. It is easy to conceive of yourself as being watched every moment. And if you are to believe the mythology espoused by television shows like Law and Order and its myriad clones, the authorities can in seconds know every move that you make physically, financially, on the internet or in the privacy of your own closet. You’re IN the computer. We have your DNA. We know just what type of porno turns you on and when your menstrual cycle begins.

The internet is the greatest tool of mass surveillance ever created. Embarrassingly intimate details about our lives are available on the web. Following your web activity can tell about your interests, associations and fetishes. Every time you type in that PIN you give yourself away. We even have places like Facebook and MySpace where it has become fashionable for good people with nothing to hide to voluntarily contribute to their own dossiers. Some even make blow-by-blow accounts of every case of insomnia or indigestion or show complete strangers their new tattoo (with photos.)

The Panopticon is no longer enjoyed exclusively by prisoners and convicts but is now available to the more general public. We can all be justifiably assured that we are being watched; we can see the cameras. Aside from the few nuts who clammer for their own reality shows most of us aren’t comfy with the idea of being constantly watched and recorded and catalogued. Most of us are a little queasy about having 32 different flavors of secret police and data banks full of our biographies sunk in some granite mountainside in Colorado. Most of us don’t want a permanent, unforgiving record of our mistakes and foolishness. But the computer and the Panopticon have conspired to render our cherished ideas of privacy and forgiveness quaint. The eye atop the pyramid sees all and never forgets thus can’t forgive.

The PoetOpticon can see your deepest feelings and fears. Every wall has eyes and ears. The mirrors are all two-way and standing just behind are your parents, your nosy neighbors and every judgmental god in heaven or hell. You confess only because you are innocent. But soon you realize that it’s not a matter of Justice but one of expedience and cold technology. Welcome to the Panopticon.

what my head overlooks
the senses will show to my heart
when it’s watching for lies
you can’t escape my
Private Eyes
they’re watching you
they see your every move
Private Eyes
they’re watching you
Private Eyes
they’re watching you watching you watching you watching you
—Daryl Hall

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