French philosopher, social theorist, philologist and literary critic Paul Michael Foucault said, “Power arises through multitudinous rules that govern social interactions and thereby mold the bodies and minds of people.” Based on this freshly introduced perspective in a society that believed in traditional ideas of power being vested in recognized individuals and groups, he laid out his famous theory of Panopticism, whereby he described an experimental laboratory of anonymous power in a disciplinary society of self-surveillance . This theory, presented in Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, has been instrumental in building the post-modern intellectual landscape of the present-day.
The purpose of this essay will be to provide the broader context and background of what Panopticism is and how contemporary examples engender this specific theory of Foucault. Using the topic of National Security of America as an example, the basis of this essay’s argument and approach to the theory of Panopticism will revolve around how Foucault’s theory is employed, how it helps and hinders the society and what my own opinion is about its usefulness.
Foucault’s concept of Panopticism emerges from a concept, created by an English Philosopher Bentham in the late 18th century, of an enclosed circular prison called ‘the Panopticon’ where watchmen, stationed in the center, would surveil all inmates in the institution (a prison) through a 360-degree view as they would be stationed around him in stories of cells . Owing to this arrangement of individualized cells, and despite being conscious of the fact that they are being watched, inmates would be unable to see the watchmen, thereby being oblivious of who it is that is watching them and at what times. Consequently, they would fear an unseen power and check their actions at all times, thus leading themselves to a habit of self-control. Describing this habit of self-control as self-surveillance, In Discipline and Punish, Foucault picked up the metaphor of the Panopticon prison to explain that the theory of Panopticism is no longer restrained to prisons but has been embedded into modern society as a phenomenon, which he goes on to call the “disciplinary society of (self-)surveillance” .
The idea behind this modern society of self-surveillance is the establishment of an omnipotent watchful guard who exists as a “mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” . This means that every individual’s personal fear of being watched by a power drives them to be remarkably cognizant of their actions. As a major characteristic of this ‘society’, Foucault identifies “automatic functioning” of this power, which in today’s world can be very much linked to technological surveillance; it is true that the need for specific architecture to effectuate panoptic surveillance has been replaced by technology advancement in production of surveillance devices that operate automatically and keep a 360-degree watch over surroundings. Foucault, further, identifies “subjectivation of the inmates” in a sense that people in this society of self-surveillance are very individualized objects of information and do not hold any power against the supreme retriever of information . These characteristics serve as rules that govern social interactions of people and make them willingly change their actions to impress an anonymous power.
Panopticism’s rise can be attributed to the increase in population and diversity of people in single locations and, most importantly, the growing security threats throughout nations of the world. In the United States, for instance, institutionalized secret surveillance forms an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security’s agenda since the attacks of 9/11 .
The New York Times states that in America, the FBI, the NSA, alongside other federal agencies are permitted to tap computers and/or phones to spy on individuals, while surveillance cameras and microphones have become omnipresent in airports, hospitals, schools, stores, resorts and city streets . The 9/11 Commission Report states that “sufficient resources” have been given to homeland security agencies by Attorney General to surveil , which has granted government an eye into every citizens’ actions from behind a wall, thereby giving the society a sense of being surveilled constantly, inducing in them a yearn to abide by all laws and not go against the establishment.
As time has passed, the increasingly employed use of chips and tagging has taken one-step ahead of device-tapping and camera surveillance as it allows very specified identification and individual surveillance. Draffan in his book ‘Welcome to the Machine’ (2004) establishes how today’s society, by methods ranging from the use of biometric passports in travel system to the use of identity chips in recognition, is being dragged towards changing into a state very much like a Panopticon. These chips have allowed for establishment of a national database where any authority can pull up criminal, educational, medical, travel, financial and social records about any individual in a matter of seconds without him knowing. Moreover, RFID chips that are transplanted under-skin have allowed second by second tracking of individuals’ whereabouts, and sometimes conversations in case of technologically engineered RFID devices that allow recording . This shows how the individual has easily become an object of information to the department of national security and no longer identifies as a group or crowd, thus pertaining to Foucault’s idea of subjectivation in panoptic societies.
The practice has been useful not only in implementing stronger national security but also in creating efficiency in the system. For example, in the policing systems of the modern times, we find that offenders and suspects are electronically tagged and allowed to stay at home, or even go to work, as long as they stay within the stipulated controlled environment. This method of panoptic power has not only allowed for the reduction in the conviction of offenders into prison for minor offenses, but also has made it possible for imposing control over the criminals only by direct observation . Similarly, the workforce in the agencies have kept up to the standards because of the constant surveillance through work-computers and cameras monitored by the superiors. As a result, both the criminals and watchers remain in a state of constant supervision which makes them fall in line with their duties in life, ensuring that discipline is maintained.
Even though the above examples establish that panopticism through cutting-edge technology has worked impressively well for national security and have benefited them the most, there has been frequent out crying on the stepping over of civil liberties by the implementation of surveillance. This shows that not everyone in society agrees with or has benefitted from their privacy being infringed . The people hurt most from the concept of panopticism in the contemporary society are the citizens who expect to have their civil liberties and rights to privacy which is infringed as they are observed unwillingly by unidentified individuals in all aspects of their lives . These group of these citizens also entail those who have not just been emotionally disturbed. The people hurt are also those who have been blackmailed by hackers who gained access to their private information database or those who have been robbed off their identity and wealth because of the growing crime of identity theft in USA. Today United States does hold a huge population of people unfairly serving in jail, filing for bankruptcy or attempting suicide due to the consequences of their information being compromised as a result of modern surveillance.
Perhaps, ironically, the most important hurt is for the homeland security forces themselves. Surveillance and big data system of collected information has led to easy information-access for terrorists who have employed hacking and surveillance devices in making very large-scale target attacks in the country. In this case, the concept has been used against society, and they end up getting hurt in the long run .
In conclusion, I would press that the concept of Panopticism is imperative in the contemporary society despite the issues that may arise in its use. National Security is extremely important to our modern sensibilities and cannot afford to be compromised. The use of new technological surveillance on the public at large has helped in curbing many criminal and terrorist activities. Even though people’s right to privacy is infringed upon, the top priority is safety in today’s environment where terrorist groups like the ISIS have announced an ever-readiness to attack the United States of America and the nation is increasingly serving as a hub for immigrants and visitors from all over the world. The concept does not distort reality but instead prepares the authorities to face it and eradicate the root of the evil before it festers into an issue much more insidious.