We live in a panopticon, congrats.

Plan of the Panopticon
Plan of the Panopticon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A panopticon is a building designed in the late 18th century by Jeremy Bentham. Designed to be a prison, it allowed a single watchman to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. It was a method of control, it was a method to ensure compliance, it was a method of punishment.

It was not designed to be something nice for the prisoners, only useful for the watchman who’s job was made significantly easier at keeping everyone in line.

In the last decade, we have built a panopticon in the western society – This is the largest social experiment ever.

The public panopticon

With the Boston Bombing, it made it crystal clear that we now live in a world where there are so many digital photos and videos that given any public event, anyone can watch anyone else with very little effort. With inventions coming down the pipeline like Google Glass, this will simply become that much more pervasive.

Reddit went crazy with amateur detective work during the early days, listing over a dozen different suspects based simply on their dress (The blue robed man), their backpack (Some runner with a similar backpack), the fact they went missing suddenly a few months back (A poor guy with some mental issues who disappeared from his school). All from the multitude of pictures and videos they were able to collect of the event.

All of whom ended up being completely innocent people just standing around watching a marathon. Thank god we don’t have lynch mobs anymore, right? Thank God we have a informed and careful media that doesn’t simply publish unsubstantiated photos of innocent men based on amateur detective work, right?


Crowdsourcing can be a good thing to raise money for good causes, to create new business opportunities, and to build new tools that are freely available for all to use.

However, crowdsourced panopticons are an immensely dangerous tool, and we are exposed to them now everyday. Our privacy disappeared with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We can try to take it back, but when a significant portion of your social life and social circle communicates using those tools. There really isn’t any escape without social isolation.

We live in a public panopticon of our creation.

This isn’t a question of privacy anymore, this is a question of actual freedom. There are regularly stories of people losing jobs because of a Twitter post that wasn’t politically correct enough, or of a photo that got posted that shouldn’t have. Individuals are told to be very careful at parties with alcohol, lest one of their friends get a photo of them intoxicated and tag them in it.

We lose our freedom because we are made to be afraid to say the truth, afraid to say our beliefs, afraid to say anything that deviates from popular opinion. Many reasonable voices are silenced, afraid that if they err in what they say, or if they change their mind a few years later they will be punished for their past sins.

We cannot say anything if it isn’t politically correct or “nice”.

The only voices that get heard are the anonymous ones, the ones who already have power, or the loud-mouths who don’t care to begin with. Actual dialogue is reduced to fearful whispers, and arrogant rants. Since we live in a panopticon, many live with an overwhelming fear that we aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right, that our mistakes will chase us for the rest of our lives.

We fear that people are watching our every move, our diets, our lives.

We fear the watchmen, but the watchmen are ourselves.

The private panopticon

Joseph McCarthy
“I love Facebook” (Photo credit: History In An Hour)

Today, an oppressive government has no need for a Stazi, it is trivial to see who everyone else relates to simply through their followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook. Joseph McCarthy would have a field day. “Are you now, or have you ever been a communist?” is answered by a quick glance at our Twitter or Facebook timeline.

Even if we didn’t post the items ourselves, it is not hard to data mine and put 2 and 2 together to figure out the answer to that question. This is the entire essence of big data, believed to be used for marketing purposes, but in recent days shown to be used for far more than that.

The NSA and CIA spy on Americans (and non-Americans). This is not surprise, and is a bit of a tautology. However, the extent of the spying still was restricted by the capacity of the technology and, hopefully, the limitations of the law.

The PRISM program disclosure demonstrated that now there is no limitation. They have access to the panopticon we have created to combine with their own already extensive structure.

It is clear that the PRISM program shocked all of us, and seeing it so clearly laid out in those slides demonstrates how complete and penetrating it is in our society. Yet, this is a panopticon our own creation. We built those walls that we lie in, we placed the watchman there ourselves out of fear that one of our our fellow inmates may try to hurt us. This should not be a surprise to anyone.

Now our leaders assure us that this is all perfectly legal, we shouldn’t mind the fact that they can listen into our phone conversations, view our private emails and facebook discussions, that they can watch us at any time with the thinnest of motives. Don’t worry, they won’t abuse it… really.

It’s for our safety you see. It’s to protect us from ourselves.

“If you have nothing to hide, then why worry about it?”

We are all sinners, we all make mistakes. We all have something to hide between us and God. If the watchman can see everything we do, he has the power to make us doing anything he wants. If we disagree with what the watchman feels is nice or right, then we could be in a lot of trouble.

Power has always attracted abuse, and absolute information will bring absolute power to him who controls it the most.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887

Are we so dull that we have forgotten this? Are we so satiated by our consumer culture that we are ok with giving this power away without a fight?

Information is power, anyone who has studied financial mathematics knows this. Arbitrage and acquisition of money without creation of value is best achieved by a imbalance in information.

The Republicans will do nothing about this, the Democrats will do nothing about this, nor will the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Labour Party, or any other party running for office. They want to control the levers of power, not break apart this massive machine. That information is the potential to rule with almost absolute power, why would they ever consider getting rid of it?

What can we do about it?

I don’t know. I know protests are ineffective, as will voting for any politician who is already in the system, and the media doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

Perhaps that’s what many, including myself, missed in Orwell’s 1984. A absolute totalitarian society wouldn’t arise through a violent takeover, but through people simply giving up their privacy for convenience and baubles.

Big brother is watching and we all seem willing to let him do so.

Big Brother is watching you
Big Brother is watching you (Photo credit: duncan)


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4 thoughts on “We live in a panopticon, congrats.

  1. We don’t live in a panopticon because we know we are being watched and we can see the people watching us. Yes we don’t have privacy anymore, but governments, banks, and corporations don’t have secrets either. To answer your question, “What can we do about it?”: we can adapt or perish. We can either look at our transparent world and acknowledge the problems that need to be solved! Or we can accept our complacency and continue to oversaturate our minds with entertainment while the wars and pollution of resources continue to get worse. We now face a crisis of morality more than ever, and in order to survive we must develop ethics and values that support truth, compassion, reason, and problem solving. Education is the ability to control one’s environment. And the internet has finally given us the ability to see our entire environment. If we want to change our environment we must be willing to look at our environment first.

    1. Just because more than individuals are being watched does not make it any less of a panopticon. In fact it makes it more so. If the watcher is us or the government the outcomes are the same – we lose freedom because at all times we could be under watch.

      Whether its the mob that enforces their will or a single dictator, it is still tyranny. Political philosophers all the way back to ancient times recognized you can have tyranny when it is a majority forcing their will.

      Regardless, under the guise of national security, Americans have a strong problem around government secrets v. Public knowledge. In that circumstance it is more than just being watched, it is being watched without knowing when or why.

      To praise the panopticon (as transparency) it is to fail to see the dangers inherent in it. In the end the only solution I can find is that we must dissent. How? I don’t know.

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