Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Remember the Panopticon?

Academics of a certain age will remember when you couldn’t take a seminar without hearing about Foucault and the Panopticon.  The panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s design, intended for a prison.  As I remember it, the idea was that the prison cells would be arranged in a circle, facing inward.  The panopticon would be in the middle of the circle, and it would be ringed with one-way mirrors, so prisoners would see themselves reflected back when they looked at it, and wouldn’t know when the guard was watching.   Foucault took the panopticon as emblematic of the ways that surveillance becomes an exercise of power, even going so far as to constitute the people being observed.  When you don’t know when you’re being watched, the theory goes, you start to watch yourself.  You make yourself a model prisoner.  You internalize the gaze of power, even going so far as to train it on yourself.

(Nostalgia for postmodernism is an odd thing.  “Remember when we decentered the phallogocentric subject?  Good times, good times…”)

In a conversation this week, I realized that the panopticon has changed form, but still very much exists.  

We were discussing something mundane and detail-y.  It’s the sort of thing that goes entirely unnoticed when it’s done perfectly, but that feeds demagogic attacks when something is even slightly off.  In making a point about attention to detail, I raised the possibility of a mistake getting local press coverage and setting off a feeding frenzy.

And I realized that I had seen that movie before.

Although Foucault liked to discuss what he called the “capillaries of power,” the panopticon was still an easily located, centralized thing.  It was a tool of a single central authority.  The jail would deploy surveillance to control the inmates.  You knew who was in charge of the tower, even if you didn’t know if it was being used at any given time.  

In the age of camera phones, though, you don’t know who’s doing the watching.  Lenses are everywhere, rather than in the middle, and control has been, well, decentered.  In the age of social media, someone in the back row can isolate a single statement -- heard correctly or incorrectly -- and loose it upon a world with multiple and conflicting agendas.  My invocation of the local newspaper was, if anything, quaint; at least newspapers have editors.  Social media are unfiltered.

In some ways, that’s great; to the extent that cell cameras make it harder to get away with, say, police brutality, that’s a gain for society.  It’s harder for the folks Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “Dreamers” to deny realities that keep getting caught on video over and over again.  Subjecting the guards to surveillance may prompt the guards to watch themselves, which is to the good.  A monopoly on the legitimate use of violence requires that the use of violence be, in fact, legitimate; to the extent that we’ve lost sight of that, or chosen not to see it, the new surveillance is doing a public service.

But awareness of the possibility of that kind of surveillance also rewards a certain blandness, grounded in a warranted paranoia.  If you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start to watch yourself.  Error avoidance can easily become risk avoidance.  From there, it’s a short step to stagnation and decline.  Innovation is messy.  We need some tolerance for messiness if we want it to thrive.  Candor is sometimes awkward and halting; subjecting it to too much scrutiny at an early stage can kill it.  If every decision is premised on “how would this look if…,” we’ll die of caution.  That’s not an inspiring way to go.

Foucault was no fan of administrators generally, so I don’t think he’d be particularly bothered by any of this.  But for those of us trying to redeem the promise of institutions, rather than writing them off as hopelessly corrupt, these questions matter. If we can’t get the cameras to stop watching, we need to educate the viewers about how to interpret what they see.  And maybe we need to be willing to drop some of the blandness.