We’re all familiar with the Panopticon, right? The notional prison devised by the eighteenth-century English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham?

No? OK, let me gloss it for you, and people for whom this is a familiar story will forgive me and, I’m sure, point out my mistakes of fact, emphasis or interpretation.

Bentham imagined a prison built in the form of a gigantic ring, with cells by their hundreds disposed around its inner wall. In the very middle of the structure’s central void stood the prison’s sole watchtower, atop which he placed a guard shack with 360-degree visibility.

How to maintain control over the prisoners with but a single tower and a relatively small cadre of guards? For all its formal ingenuity, Bentham’s real innovation was this: the cells lining the periphery were to be brightly illuminated at all times, while the guard tower itself was never lit. The guards were therefore free to observe activity in any cell, at any moment…while the contrast between their brightly-lit cells and the watchtower’s mute windows meant prisoners could never be certain if the guards were observing them, someone else or no one at all. (In principle, the prison administration could go a step further and achieve the same docilizing results without even staffing the tower. How would the inmates even know? After all, they were, and would remain, literally in the dark.)

And there was one final visibility-related wrinkle. The prison would be sited on a hill just outside of town, always there as a vivid reminder that any trespass of the social order would come at a price.

Bentham called his device the Panopticon, and the twentieth-century philosopher of power Michel Foucault famously used it as a jumping-off point for his own dissection of the ways surveillance, visibility and discipline work in contemporary society. One of Foucault’s arguments was that over time, this internalization becomes an entirely unconscious process, that we carry disciplinarity into the ways we move, speak, act and hold our bodies.

We can see this at work on the most literal level in the way we react to the presence of surveillance cameras. An ordinary CCTV camera’s gaze is directional. It sees you, but you see it seeing you. And should you be interested in evading its gaze, you’re free to tailor your actions accordingly.

As Anna Minton notes, though, in last year’s invaluable Ground Control, the simplest possible material intervention — housing the selfsame camera under an opaque polycarbonate dome, costing at the very most a few tens of dollars — achieves precisely the same innovation as that Bentham placed at the heart of Panopticon. Once the mechanism itself is screened by the dome, anything you do in the 360-degree field around it is potentially in its field of vision. You’re no longer quite certain whether you’re actually under surveillance at any given moment — in fact, there needn’t even be a functioning camera under the dome at all — but are in the interests of prudence forced to assume that you are. You’re compelled to internalize the sense that you’re being watched.

Domes are cheaper than cameras, but of course signs are that much cheaper still; I often suspect that the big yellow notice warning me that I’m under CCTV surveillance is unaccompanied by any actual gear to speak of. What could possibly be a more effective deterrent than the watcher that can’t be seen at all?

What’s the harm in all of this neopanopticism? While there have been cases in which this latent apparatus of control has proved decisive in bringing criminals to justice, or at the very least provided us with a few moments of lulzy fun, longer-term statistical analysis paints a different picture. London’s Metropolitan Police admits that CCTV imagery was used in the resolution of less than four out of every hundred crimes. All that watchfulness may be having some effect on behavior, but it sure isn’t buying the public any particular increment of personal safety.

Minton points out that long-cherished civil liberties may not be the only thing being damaged by the presence of CCTV. She compares Britain with CCTV-free Denmark, and from her review of the available data concludes that pervasive surveillance is actually counterproductive. (The conjectured causative mechanism: because people feel that the implicit presence of supervisory authority makes someone else responsible for dealing with crime, they tune out the incidents they witness, or otherwise choose not to intervene.)

In practice, technologies like CCTV surveillance are always exceedingly difficult to weigh in the balance, the more so when technical developments like doming change the envelope of affordances and constraints in which they operate. The complications are redoubled when those of us who are concerned with public space can only wield dry abstractions like “civil liberties” against hot-button appeals and the human reality of victimization. In this light, it’s not unreasonable to argue that some loss of anonymity is acceptable if it meant the capture and punishment of muggers and rapists and hit-and-run drivers. (I wouldn’t happen to agree with you, personally, but it’s not an outright ridiculous belief to hold.)

But we should be very clear that that’s the trade-off we’re being offered. Furthermore, proponents of technologies like CCTV should also be conversant with — and forthright about — the potential for mission creep inherent in them. Systems already deployed are turned toward unforeseen uses; frameworks we already recognize (and therefore, we reckon, understand sufficiently well) are endowed with entirely new potential as easily as you’d blow new firmware into your phone or digital camera. And this happens every day: when we were in Wellington, for example, we were told that the surveillance cameras that voters approved to help manage traffic congestion had been repurposed for crime prevention, without a corresponding degree of public consultation.

Let the image stream coming off of them be provided with a facial-recognition algorithm, and you’ve got an entirely different kind of system on your hands, with entirely different potentials and vastly expanded implications. Yet the cameras, domed or otherwise, look no different from one day to the next. How are people supposed to inform themselves, or avail themselves of their existing prerogatives, under such circumstances?

And all of this is still confining our discussion to the visual realm! Yet the real relevance of this neopanoptical drift will only become obvious to most of us as more data is gathered passively in public space, through location-aware devices, embedded sensors and machine inference built on them. It’s these developments which will, as I’ve argued elsewhere, “permanently redefin[e] surveillance,” and it’s these that I’m more worried about than any simple plastic dome. If we don’t get a collective handle on what disciplinary observation means for our polities and places now, we’ll be in genuine trouble when that observation gets infinitely more distributed and harder to see.

7 responses to “Neopanoptical”

  1. Liz Buckley says :

    For me to get a handle on this new unseen presence in the world I have a personal label I call Project Mona Lisa’s Smile. A silly name, but, supposedly, it is woman’s face that shows no fear (I believe it can also be ‘disarming’ pun intended) and that is the desired result of the security systems. I have been following the construction of a new building in Washington D.C., United States Institute of Peace, ( and the programs they are providing. Here is a portion of one of the papers they have on their web site.

    6.5.15 Approach: Intelligence
    Intelligence is not a dirty word. It is essential for security. Police need actionable information on politically motivated violence, crimes, and civil disturbances, which requires aggressive and continuous reconnaissance and surveillance. Knowledge allows the police to identify potential hot spots within communities before they ignite and gather information on hostile groups or individuals, terrain, weather, and even the performance of other local police officers. The gathering of intelligence must conform with human rights standards.

    6.11.2 Intelligence. Establishing a safe and secure environment in a society emerging from conflict requires actionable intelligence about potential threats that may arise. But intelligence is not a formal or acknowledged part of S&R (Stabilization and Reconstruction) missions. Doctrinal guidance and cooperation on this function is sorely needed to ensure that critical information is collected and appropriately shared.

    While “human rights standards” may be as vague as “civil liberties” neither are as vague as Mona Lisa’s smile but it is a starting point.

  2. Christopher Fahey says :

    It was strange to read this one this morning, Adam, written by you only days before the would-be Times Square bombing. Privacy concerns fall away when I consider what might have happened in the heart of my home city: I am filled with hope that surveillance cameras (and other forensics) will spell the undoing of the fucker(s) who did this. I can’t imagine how mad I’d be if there *wasn’t* saturated video surveillance of Times Square.

    Insert observation that a Republican is a Democrat who got mugged… A totalitarian is a libertarian who got bombed?

  3. AG says :

    And you know, Chris, I might agree with you that Times Square is going to be a perennial target for this sort of thing, and should therefore receive more in the way of observation than I might otherwise be comfortable with.

    (Maybe. I couldn’t possibly be more sympathetic with your anger at anyone who wants to do that to the New York and the New Yorkers I love. But I’m just about equally wary of more than a few of our anointed protectors.)

    But that’s not at all the way this stuff is playing out in London. It’s just crazy, the amount of cameras you contend with there, and in spaces that present much less clearcut choices.

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    Yes, it’s muddy. Also: I refer back to previous comments I’ve made to you questioning the idea that public spaces should offer any special level of privacy at all — or if, historically, they ever have.

    An added nuance or two, submitted without judgement:

    1. Many of the cameras being used to investigate the Times Square car bomb are going to be private security cameras or even tourist point-n-shoots, not state-controlled cameras.

    2. The Times Square surveillance saturation apparently has no “stop-them-in-their-tracks” prevention effect, but rather only allows cops to collect evidence after the fact (and perhaps some measure of deterrence or difficulty to non-suicide attackers).

  5. AG says :

    Well, I’m much less doctrinaire on these questions than you may suspect. I just think people ought to know what they’re getting into, ought to be prepared for the revenge effects they’re certainly going to be experiencing.

    With regard to the idea that an expectation of anonymity is a historical artifact, I’m not so sure. I mean, you could argue that woman suffrage is a historical artifact, too, but that doesn’t mean I’d want to live in a place where it wasn’t a permanent feature of the sociopolitical landscape.

  6. Christopher Fahey says :

    Point taken. I suppose privacy, in a broader sense, is an emergent right being created and defined by progressives, not a historically-existent right that is being taken away by tyrants. Which is pretty much the pattern for almost all rights.

  7. Larry Irons says :

    To the,in my mind, larger point of the gaze’s absence creating a deterrence moment. The Pennsylvania State Police used to park unmanned cars along the turnpike. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if many warning signs about surveillence are bluffs. However, I suspect the ones that matter are not.

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