Friday, March 21, 2008

Panopticism – should it be scary?

Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon naturally leads one to think about all of the ways that this new type of power could be abused. The idea is made even more frightening when Foucault applies it to such a wide range of structures. But then Bentham tries to save face by arguing that panopticism can be a means for transparency at all levels. He says that the doors to the central tower are to be kept open, and all records made public. Perhaps oddly, the Panopticon is presented as a (potentially) democratic tool. This argument is a clear invitation for skepticism; one need only think of 1984-esque surveillance to revert to fear once more.

On second (or third) thought, however, I think that Bentham may be on to something. In Bentham’s time, it was necessary to imagine an architectural structure to accomplish the goals of the Panopticon. Combined with the selection of a prison, this makes for an ominous image. But it need not be so. With modern technology, one-way observation is nothing remarkable. I’m writing this post in the Sciences Library, where there are plenty of security cameras. This is probably a good thing, and one can imagine scenarios in which it would be desirable for a whole class of individuals to have access to the surveillance. For example, for times when our self-discipline fails us, it might be helpful to enter into a situation where discipline is placed upon us – subtly yet powerfully. We could, in effect, utilize panopticism to internalize the disciplines we find attractive, without others being imposed against our will.

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