Do we all now live in a “Panoptic world,” in which everyone is watched all the time?
Whether it’s the death of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 assault against the U.S. Capitol or a simple stroll in Central Park, one thing that has become a constant in today’s world is that someone, somewhere, has a camera on it. We all now seem to live in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon — the name the 18th-century philosopher gave to a circular building, where every action of everyone in it can be watched all the time.
Like the eyes of the guards in the prisons and workplaces Bentham designed, his influence is everywhere today. But then, he counted surveillance as a public good, believing it forces people to behave and cooperate. Bentham wrote about ethics, and his theory of utilitarianism, where ends justify the means, has long since served as the bedrock of public policy. In matters of privacy, Bentham’s notion of “utility” has aided the viral spread of surveillance technologies, whether in one-party states like China or liberal democracies like the United States.
The result is that today it seems everything we do is tracked by satellites and other ubiquitous snooping technologies. Closed-circuit cameras watch us as we drive or walk to work, enter our workplaces, sit at our desks and eat in the cafeteria. Even restrooms aren’t always exempt. We are watched doing our shopping, getting on public transport, or going to a sports arena or concert. Hidden cameras keep a baleful eye over bars and clubs. Videos of people “caught in the act” have become a staple of the internet. And by far the most widespread of all: We train our cellphone cameras on each other.
Nowadays, we are not just watched, but our activities are coded, stored and, in many cases, put to someone else’s use — whether for security purposes, or for profit or other gain. Our faces are matched to names and our names to places. Clicks on social media become a wellspring of insights into our identities and proclivities, good and bad.
Powerful computers whir tirelessly, sifting emails for suspicious correspondence, cross-referencing the internet histories of every terminal, scouring for evidence of security breaches or other malign activities. They search through bank accounts and credit cards for evidence of improprieties; they sort through shopping bills for citizens’ habits. As these digital realities infuse our lives, social norms change.
How did we get here? Ever since George Orwell described Big Brother in his allegorical novel “1984,” state surveillance has had a bad name. Prior to that, surveillance was less controversial: Elizabeth I of England and Napoleon used it, and they were admired for doing so. Now, scarcely a month goes by without some government laying claim to new authority, with or without court oversight. Today, three generations after Orwell’s alarms, the tide of opinion has moved back in favor of state power and away from privacy. We expect, and sometimes demand, that cameras watch over us, particularly for public safety.
Certainly, Bentham would be hostile to unbridled privacy, believing it runs counter to a well-managed society. Yet, in today’s authoritarian societies, where Big Brother’s watchful eye ensures conformance with approved dogma, officials are likely to dub privacy as superfluous. In any case, tidy theoretical distinctions — between government and private business, between collecting data and creating data — blur, when faced with contemporary electronic intrusion.
For Bentham, the rewards of surveillance extended beyond just people behaving better, itself a controversially fuzzy concept. More concretely: Industry would be invigorated and the economy strengthened — what’s labeled today as the “surveillance economy.” Social media profits from just such a commodification of personal data. Bentham could not have imagined how digital technology makes surveillance of everyone, all the time, possible.
Looking back on Bentham’s writings from today’s vantage point, we can see some things he got right and some he got wrong. He was wrong to assume that the knowledge of being watched would always improve behavior. We see that in, say, the acts of a few police officers who act unnecessarily aggressively against Black Americans, despite knowing that onlookers’ cellphones and the officers’ own body cameras may be recording.
Today, with unabashed government, industry and individual monitoring of everyday activities, Big Brother has become a watcher whose presence both reassures and perturbs. For better or worse, Jeremy Bentham’s dream of the Panopticon has morphed into a modern-day reality.
Martin Cohen (email@example.com) is a philosopher writer and editor; his most recent book is “(The Leader’s Bookshelf: 25 Great Books and Their Readers.” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, October 2020). Keith Tidman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer focusing on social and political philosophy.