The Panopticon

An idea that kept getting revisited time and time again whilst studying ‘power’ was this idea of the Panopticon. It was an architectural design developed in the late 1700s, whereby people inside the building were placed in such a way as be to be monitored by a power elite. This had the same idea of ‘monitoring the masses’ as any other prison or building where you would be expected to be watched.

The difference here was that the people being watched never knew for sure whether they were or not – they could not see those in authority from one moment to the next. As they could never actively confirm that they were not being watched, they had to thus assume that they were. This had the effect of keeping those in the lesser state of power constantly in check, as if they believed they were being watched around the clock, they would have no ability or time to rebel or escape, unless tossing caution to the wind and completely risking their plan in plain view of the power elite.

Although the panoptican was by default an idea applied to buildings, a theorist named Michel Foucault applied it metaphorically to the the structure of the countries that we live in today. Capitalism has a structure where the government are the power elite, and all those governed by them are in a lesser state of power. The idea of the government monitoring everyone all the time isn’t really a stretch of the imagination, but to apply the theory of the panopticon would be to say that the masses under the government act passively because they assume they’re being monitored, without ever really knowing for sure. In the recent game Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a level called ‘The Gulag’ is actually set in a Panopticon (for a more first-hand view of the structure – 2:30 for the good bit):

It all taps into the idea of surveillance. Can the government really be watching each of our every moves around the clock? 1984 would say so, but how has that work of fiction been applied to the reality of today? Controlling the masses and the discourse structure is one thing, but monitoring them is something else – the previously-cited incident with the jailed youths provoking riots on Facebook was one example of surveillance.

Cameras situated all around urban areas are another example – people in Birmingham have recently protested about the excess of cameras and the lack of privacy. They were installed to reduce crime, but they didn’t really work. CCTV networks are installed in almost every building nowadays – even residential houses have them. What’s more, with technological advances, they’re also becoming smaller and harder to spot, and being incorporated into things like mobile phones (which are in themselves also being monitored regarding what is sent on texts, and what is said over phone line connections). ‘Cameras’ refer to a more physical-based surveillance however, best used only in local areas. Nowadays the monitoring appears to be more electronic-based.

Take myself for example – if I put a post up about ‘Thin Lizzy’ on Facebook, a little menu will appear at the side ‘related to the post’ based around merchandise related to Thin Lizzy, or other bands of the same genre that I might be interested in. These can range from shirts to concert tickets. Somewhere, the fact that I’ve posted something up about this band is logged and stored. This is further evidenced in the Facebook programme that shows you the ‘statuses posted a year ago today’. Where is this information going to? Who’s collecting it?

Note the menu bar on the right of the screen

By way of discourse, we’ve been influenced not to care so much about it (a simplified way that Roland Barthes put it would be called a ‘whatever moment’ – a point when we just give up caring). Can it be that we are being monitored on every site we go on, then on every street corner when we leave our house? We’re told that they’re all there for our protection – which they are – but then they’re also there to keep tabs on our individual lives. What makes it ironic is that we’re not really bothered about this, although I’ve heard that some students on my media course are starting to refuse to have anything to do with Facebook due to ‘political reasons’.

In all fairness, networking sites like Facebook are offering a complete psychological profile of you, to whoever knows the right people to access that information. Psyching-up the revolutionaries may be one of the more effective weapons that the government will be able to use in the conflicts of tomorrow, all because we’ve been monitored our whole lives – even when we thought we weren’t.


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