Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Digital Panopticon

An edited version of this piece was published in the Deming Headlight on June 17.  This is the version I submitted. It includes a little bit more about privacy as a matter of dignity.


A popular definition of “character” is that your true character emerges when you think no one is looking.  What happens, then, if you live every moment of your day knowing someone might be looking?

In the late eighteenth century, an English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham invented a kind of prison house he hoped would serve as a kind of “mill to grind rogues honest.”  His prison incorporated a circular design that allowed guards to observe any inmate, or all of them, at a time.  The vantage was one-way, however.  The prisoners knew that at any moment, even in their own cells, they might be watched, yet they could not see when or who might be watching them.  Bentham felt this would create “the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence” that would influence their behavior. Bentham hoped this architectural concept would also be adopted by schools, workhouses, and other public institutions. 

Although Bentham’s ideal prison was never built, the concept of permanent visibility – when an individual can never feel secure from surveillance – has become a powerful metaphor in literature and psychology.  The term “panopticism” was coined by Michel Foucault to describe mechanisms in which power can be enforced even when the authority is not present: a cop in the head, so to speak. 

When was the last time you walked into a store and saw a sign on the door inviting you to smile because you were on camera?  Frequently, the signs offer the explanation that you are being watched for your own protection, although every rational person knows that security is actually in place in order to discourage theft or vandalism. 

A great many people have responded to the major news of the past month – the revelation of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which collects massive amounts of data on everyday digital communications using cell phones, Skype, Facebook, and e-mail – with yawns, or jokes that the NSA agents would be terminally bored if they were eavesdropping on their calls.  In a more serious vein, a common dismissal has been voiced along these lines:  “What do you have to worry about, unless you have something to hide?” 

Although polls so far show mixed results as far as public opinion about PRISM and other domestic surveillance programs, what is certainly true is that in our country we have come to tolerate an unprecedented degree of surveillance.  We are used to security cameras and security checkpoints, removing shoes or belts in order to board an airplane, background checks and even urinalysis for interactions as basic as applying for entry-level jobs.  We are used to our internet activity being tracked for marketing purposes, to giving out our Social Security numbers as passwords for all kinds of accounts, to being profiled, inspected, and watched over a greater and greater swath of our social lives.  We are, as a people, very generous and cooperative when it comes to commerce and security.  Smile!  You’re on camera. 

If character is tested when we think no one is looking, how can we develop character if we are never invisible?  With so much of our lives spent online and so much personal information transferred digitally, and with the powers the state now has to monitor and track our lives, will we eventually lose the dignity of being offline and unwatched?

This dignity is crucial, as I once had to explain to someone who was genuinely surprised when I objected to them reading my personal diary.  They had come across it, knew what it was, and felt entitled to read it as if it were any novel in my library.  When I objected, I was met with a sincerely astonished reaction.  Why would I be concerned about privacy unless I had something bad to hide?  The best metaphor I could find that day was the bathroom door.  There are places and times where closing that door is essential to maintaining some semblance of personal dignity. 

When a respect for privacy is no longer valued at all, when a program like PRISM no longer raises eyebrows, Bentham’s panopticon will have been built without laying a single brick.  

Do you suppose this lends itself more to democracy, or to an authoritarian regime?