Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Brother and Bentham’s Panopticon

One might think that Big Brother is a recent invention and that it is related to electronic cameras and TV screens. It is true, the expression “Big Brother” is only 60 years old and has been thought up by George Orwell, and the modern way of observing people is not possible without cameras and screens. Nonetheless, the idea as such is much older. I do not know how old it is, but at the end of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a panopticon. Forty years ago the panopticon has been discussed by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and punish. However, for a description I want to quote Elisheva Sadan’s Empowerment and Community Planning (e-book version, 2004, on www.mpow.org/elisheva_sadan_empowerment_intro.pdf , p. 62): “The Panopticon is an eight-sided building surrounded by a wall, with a tower at the center. The … occupants of the structure sit in cells located on floors around the wall. The cells have two apertures – one for light, facing outwards through the wall, and one facing the inner courtyard and the tower. The cells are completely separated from one another by means of walls. … Overseers sit in the tower and observe what happens in every cell. The [occupants] are isolated from one another, and exposed to constant observation. Since they cannot know when they are being observed, they supervise their behavior themselves.” As Foucault (1979, p. 200) explains, the structure can be used “to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy”, or, I want to add, any other person that you want to observe in this way. It is based on the idea of secret observation and secretly controlling what people do. Seen in this way, the panopticon is nothing else than Big Brother before the expression existed.
A panopticon and surveillance cameras are ways of exercising power over people. As such this needs not to be bad. Prisoners are in prison with reason, because of what they have done in the past. Surveillance cameras are often used in order to prevent crime. There are enough people who will misuse the situation if a crime can be done unpunished. But these kinds of power are not personal, as I explained in my last blog. They are embedded in a bureaucratic situation with all the risks of a bureaucratic situation: nobody feels oneself responsible in person for what happens and what the whole organisation does. It is as Sadan says (p.63): “The most diabolical aspect of power is that it is not entrusted in the hands of someone so that he may exercise it upon others absolutely. It entraps everyone who comes close to it: those who exercise power as well as those who are subject to it. The jailers, like the prisoners, are in certain senses also entrapped in the prison.”

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