Posts Tagged ‘political theory’

An essay I wrote for my 300-level Contemporary Political Theory course. As always, discussion or critique appreciated. This essay considers the relevance of Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon (borrowed from Jeremy Bentham) in modern surveillance; in other words, is it true that we are all kept in line by a fear of surveillance? I received A+ for this essay. Please don’t copy my work, an anvil could fall on your head.

The Irrelevance of Foucault’s Panopticism in Contemporary Surveillance
Vanessa Bramwell
200.315 Short Essay, 21/08/14

Bentham’s Panopticon, as described by Foucault, is redundant in the era of digital surveillance. Foucault asserts in his work Discipline and Punishment that this model would infiltrate the social body entirely. While the model had extended into many public and private institutions at the time of Foucault’s writing, the adaptation of this concept in response to globalisation has changed it into a method of control that should be considered fundamentally different. There are three principle deviations of the current model from the Foucauldian; its scope, its intention to mislead about who, in fact, is watching us, and – most significantly – the lack of imposed isolation. While the central idea of using surveillance as a means to discipline has remained, the increasing globalisation of, and by, technology has rendered these adaptations necessary. While the first two deviations serve to illustrate the fact that the current model is not panoptic, the latter can be investigated as a potential threat to the entire ethos of surveillance as a means of discipline.
The first deviation to consider is the sheer scope of contemporary surveillance. Foucault quotes Bentham as describing the Panopticon as “applicable to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection” . It seems to be a lack of insight on the part of Foucault to not investigate this important criterion. In his zeal to apply the model as a tool of critical theory, Foucault writes, “The Panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body” (Foucault 1977, p.207). This is a fundamental contradiction in theory that has been borne out in reality. The panoptic schema necessarily requires a physical location to function. Because of the scale of societies, the Panopticon cannot be effective as an abstract tool of oppression in its true form. Borders and land area make it impossible for any individual to view all the participants of digital communication simultaneously. The technocrats who inherited the evolved form of this model have attempted to utilise mass surveillance in the form of algorithms, and thus have opened themselves to the fallibility of their own tools. An algorithm is a poor substitute for a pair of eyes, as it can be easily misled once those being watched are aware of its presence. This is the heart of the deviation; in the panoptic model, the subject is aware of the watcher, but cannot avoid being seen due to physical confinement. Another crucial point of fallibility is that, clearly, an algorithm cannot possess intuition and thus can only locate threats already accounted and programmed for; it is incapable of identifying innovation.
The second deviation of digital surveillance from the panoptic model regards the identity of the watcher, and the purpose of their surveillance. The panoptic model requires the subject to know that they are – or rather, could be at any time – watched by a public servant. As an incarcerated person, they understand that this power relationship is legitimate; not just as criminals, but also as patients, schoolchildren or any other identity which has traditionally been understood to be under the jurisdiction of the state. In the case of contemporary mass surveillance, it is less frequently state governments doing the watching than financial corporations. Corporations seek to create a fictitious bipolar power relationship, in which the only actors are governments and subjects. Anonymity is the tool that allows them to act with impunity. The most powerful digital corporations hide behind unimposing logos, such as the lower-case ‘f’ of Facebook; these networks are presented as a social commons, in which free speech and individualism are championed. Data is mined from users and sold to investors, who lobby state governments. Governments themselves become active on social media. The public is thereby convinced that the only actors are civil society and government, and that these networks are simply the new public sphere. It can generally be accepted that some digital surveillance will be carried out by governments on the grounds of pre-emptive security; but while we are aware that corporations may be surveiling us, we are less likely to accept this as legitimate, and are not expressly made aware of our discipline. In this way, surveillance is no longer a bipolar relationship between ruler and subject, as it once was, and is not carried out only for the purpose of civic order.
The third and most significant deviation is the lack of imposed isolation in digital communication. Indeed, the technocrats responsible for developing digital surveillance had this intention. In making personal profiles, users are able to have their individualism buffered by the all-encompassing, normalising web of social media sites, and as such will foster the norm of being a digital citizen. This is an ingenious modification of the panoptic model, because it absorbs the potential for reactionary movements. As Foucault writes, “Like surveillance and with it, normalisation becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the Classical Age” (Foucault 1977, p.184). Subjects have the illusion that they are simultaneously more individualised and more connected than ever before, in an Arendtian ‘social space’. However, self-surveillance, the ultimate result of Foucault’s panopticism, can only be assured when no outside influences can spread. If any dissent should manage to arise, it is able to spread rapidly across borders, space and timezones. The power of the norm of digital consumer culture may be transcended by the ease with which contrary ideas can spread. While it could be argued that the recent Arab Spring revolutions were covertly fostered by Western or simply corporate forces, through the media of social networking, the fact remains that the ideas and sentiments of people escalated rapidly through communication and had extreme consequences in terms of power relations. This potential should frighten technocrats. The Occupy movement utilised social media, the very invention of its enemies, and is perhaps only a shadow of future dissent. While we remain floodlit, we are no longer isolated, and this is the seminal difference between digital surveillance and the panoptic model that Foucault identified as an inevitability. Surveillance is not sufficient to pre-empt dissent in a globalised world; it is no longer effective as a means of discipline.
While Foucault applied Bentham’s vision of the Panopticon as a critical social theory, he overlooked the inapplicability of the model on a macro scale. He can be partially forgiven for this, as he cannot have predicted the advent of digital technology, or perhaps the extent of globalisation in the twenty-first century. Surveillance has, though, as he predicted, infiltrated every possible social realm. Its purpose is generally corporate, and as such we are blinded to the true identity and purpose of our watchers. While digital citizens have had agency removed from their individualism through social media, it is also possible for them to manipulate this technology to revolutionary ends if the ideas are able to spread faster than any repercussions. The Panopticon is no longer applicable as a model of surveillance, even in micro realms such as the office, where employees are now more likely to surveiled through computer activity than cameras; a metaphor for, rather than an extension of, actual vision. Even the legacy of this model is at risk, as a means of discipline, in the digital era.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. Alan
Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.


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