Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Edward Snowden, Pavlov's Dogs, and the New Panopticon

Willey Reveley's schematic of Bentham's
proposed Panopticon. Click to enlarge.
Edward Snowden threatened on Monday to bring forward new documents embarrassing to American officials, managing to revitalize his standing in domestic headlines. If you’re anything like me, you probably hadn’t realized, until paid pundits began parsing Snowden’s threat from various angles, that his spine-chilling NSA accusations, had fallen off the radar. Today’s 24-hour news cycle makes it appallingly easy to forget even urgent, powerful stories.

Amid pseudo-news, celebrity gossip, and shoddy opinion merchantry, it’s easy to avoid acknowledging our own role in forgetting important news. Yet Americans’ willingness to accept terrifying surveillance conditions reflects a Pavlovian internalization of outside stimuli. Governments, private corporations, and even nosy individuals spy on citizens daily, and we accept this. But I’ve come to suspect we face more than blithe disregard. Americans have unwillingly come to accept a prison mentality.

Public surveillance techniques surrounding Americans daily have become legion, and remarkably invisible. In 2010, newshounds felt shocked when a Pennsylvania school district admitted using webcams to spy on students. Anyone using most current laptops faces an integrated webcam which we can only block by putting electrical tape over the lens. Smartphones contain GPS technology which we can only disable by removing the battery—essentially opting out of modern digital networks.

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in 1791, proposed a new prison, the Panopticon, from the Latin for “place where everything is seen.” His design involved radial cells arranged around a central guard tower, which is glassed in so guards can see into cells, but prisoners can’t see the guards. Panopticon prisoners have no privacy; barred cells make prisoners perform every act, however humiliating, in view of each other and of unseen guards.

Prior prisons suffered virtual anarchy because guards couldn’t watch all prisoners at all times. Bentham’s design disclaimed constant surveillance: because prisoners never know when the guards are watching, they must always behave as though the guards were right there, because sometimes they are. Though Bentham’s designs have seldom been used, and mainly in Communist countries or military dictatorships, his principles govern modern maximum security prisons.

Bentham had sweeping influence on British philosophers, especially John Stuart Mill; but Bentham’s own decidedly stilted prose is generally read today only by scholars. General audiences today more often encounter his Panopticon theory in Michel Foucault’s 1975 Discipline & Punish. Foucault situates prisons among other “mechanisms of power,” including schools and military, noting that social control serves not to preserve justice, but to create identity.

That is, prisoners who survive the Panopticon without incurring new punishment, necessarily internalize the overriding ethos of surveillance. They comport themselves according to assumptions of constant oversight and imminent punishment. They learn to police their actions constantly; the best even assume supervisory roles over other prisoners, quashing undesirable behavior before guards can notice. Successful prisoners essentially let prison ethics into their heads, assuming subordinated attitudes, and guarding themselves.

When we discuss prisons this way, we may feel revolted by such blatant social engineering, or we may concede its necessity among criminals and traitors. But the Panopticon attitude percolates outside prisons. Military dictatorships rely on “secret police” to enforce fear-based social control. Even in democracies, drug wars and anti-pornography stings rely on unmarked plainclothes informants, making every transaction a potential police bust.

Worse, NSA spying, conducted as an undifferentiated dragnet, turns the technologies we need to participate in modern society into potential instruments of control. Informed citizens know the police can use our phone records, Google searches, and other data trails against us, often without a warrant. I’ve seen people carrying laptops who nevertheless use public computers for non-routine business, because they fear leaving trails the state can use against them.

Even if we’re not criminals, we excuse high-handed government intrusions as necessary to maintain order, a goal in itself. We tell ourselves we’re okay with the administration pulling our GPS coordinates off our phones because, hell, we’re not doing anything wrong. We keep our heads down and don’t make waves, even against intrusions consistent with Cold War-era military juntas, because… well, because we’ve let the Panopticon condition us into submission.

American ethics were founded upon the idea that citizens constitute and control their government. But our blasé attitudes regarding Edward Snowden’s revelations prove that we’ve relinquished that role. We let the state constitute us. Thus we cast votes and conduct business on the state’s terms, creating a circular arrangement that preserves power, even when we know the process is manifestly unjust.

Breaking the cycle won’t be easy. But hopefully, once we acknowledge it exists, we’ll begin the long overdue process.


  1. Great post, Kevin, and I think accurate. The blase' attitude you discuss worries the life out of me.

  2. You're not doing anything wrong... Until the government suddenly decides you are...

  3. The connection between Panopticon and Snowden files is very interesting and it is worth to work more on that. Faucault died too early to see this, I guess what he would have thought and write about.