Our new miniseries on Surveillance begins with your host tripping over the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the man who gave us the Panopticon.



11 comments on Burning down the Panopticon

  1. Really enjoyed part 1 of surveillance series & looking forward to the rest.

    A comment on your first critique of the panopticon metaphor. The self surveillance via technologies of social media and wearable devices makes the metaphor invalid (sorry for the bad paraphrasing).

    I disagree that it is we that are doing the surveillance since this new surveillance isn’t us but it is rather the designers and maintainers of the technology. We remain the “prisoners” in the panopticon.

    But I agree that the metaphor is flawed. We are not (at least not in the way Foucault intended) changing our behavior. But this does not mean we are free f the panopticon.

    I’m teaching a course in privacy and will be making your podcast recommended listening. I did the same with your work on the “sharing/participatory” economy episodes.

    Great work!

  2. fiveipads says:

    i really wished this talked about allan sekula! whenever i think about benthamite(maybe he coined that term?) metaphors and contemporary surveillance culture i think of the body and the archive as the foundation of an actual bridge. maybe i also just heavily advocate for larger sekula visibility whenever possible. maybe in the future!

    1. I listened to this during my journey across Andalusia, and now have the most vivid memory of this as I was exploring a massive olive grove. Thank you so much, deeply.

  3. I was reminded of an archeological dig near my old home in Coburg, VIC, Australia. They found a Panopticon beneath the grounds under the former gaol at Pentridge.
    Here is the report in The Age:

    1. This is amazing! I’m from Ipswich, QLD. I’m going to check this out. Thanks!

  4. Malik Bennett says:

    Have you heard of Panopticlick? It is, basically, an omnibus tracking test done by the EFF that is quite… deflating.

    Schneier on Security

    A transcript of a good discussion (search Panopticlick)

  5. Jonathan says:

    The panoptiocn has won!

    I’m not sure where your discussion of surveillance will lead in the future, but I think your first show missed one or two key ideas regarding the philosophical/sociological implications of the panopticon (though perhaps you considered them and chose not to include them). I am not necessarily making an argument for keeping the metaphor alive—I am generally suspicious of metaphors as I think even the best ones can restrict thought as easily as illuminate it—but I don’t think we can dismiss it.
    I first encountered the Benthem, Foucoult and the panopticon in Urban Studies in the midst of a discussion about race, space, society and government. We discussed the idea of the panopticon as being explicitly about race in today’s society, discussing Bodies and Gazes, who is looking, and who is being surveyed. Aa privileged white man, for example, I generally enjoy deference from police rather than scrutiny, and I can stroll, easily, through any white neighborhood. In the eyes of the state and my fellow citizens, my humanity is always visible, but my body is essentially inconsequential, or invisible, as far as society is concerned (except, of course, when it comes to the market sating my various corporeal desires).
    Considering a Black Person in a White Space, however, the gaze is reversed. We, in the White power structure have developed a preoccupation with the Black Body that is wrapped up in an incredibly complex web of fear, desire and capitalization. The humanity of a Black Person in a White Space is utterly invisible, but his or her body is the disproportionate focus of attention and surveillance, both by the police apparatus and of the White Citizenry (or, in totality, the White Power Structure). I suspect that to say the panopticon is dead (which, I distinguish from your argument to kill the oversimplified metaphor) is to express White Privilege.
    As convoluted as these remarks may sound, they are still a gross oversimplification of a topic that would benefit from a dissertation worth of explication.
    A second point, related but perhaps simpler to explain, regards self-surveillance or self-censorship, which I believe you touched on, but only at a glance. This is where I disagree with your assessment of social media as the match set to burn down the metaphor. On the contrary, I think social media is the ultimate expression of the panopticon. A key component and perhaps the most insidious result of that infernal contraption is that, because the Subject can never know when he is being surveyed, he must, wracked with anxiety, assume he is always being surveyed. This point is perhaps self-evident in your explanation, but what was not clear is the degree to which the Subject internalizes that surveillance, and takes it with him, even when he leaves the panopticon. I’m sure you can see how this relates to a discussion on Race in America, but to tie it more generally to social media: every time I post something on facebook (I don’t in reality, but let’s say I do for the sake of explanation), I must weigh my words carefully, precisely choose and edit my pictures, all so I can present a carefully constructed—self-censored—version of myself to an audience of decorporalized human begins out in the aether who are just as busy creating constructions of themselves. I cannot see their bodies, and we can argue about whether or not I see their humanity, or, as I suspect, I only see the selves they are comfortable revealing under the auspices of intense, anxiety-inducing, internalized surveillance.
    I understand your quarrel with the metaphor, and largely agree—we can communicate with each other now, with social media, in a way that would not be possible in a literal panopticon. However, I think self-surveilance is the most important and lasting effect of the idea of bentheam’s creation, and as long as there is an imbalance of power, someone will benefit to the detriment (even unknowingly) of others. Yes, I can share my pictures with you, but Facebook still has all the power. I have never seen Mark Zuckerburg’s body, but he, my generation’s greatest Overseer, has constructed the most magnificent panopticon, and I feel its relentless gaze, always.
    By the way, lest you think otherwise, I am a huge fan of your show (and indeed, all of radiotopia) and am eagerly awaiting further entries in your series on surveillance. I have deep interest in the topic and can’t wait to see what you do with it!

  6. Nate says:

    Dear TOE,

    The Stateville Prison Roundhouse which is a Panopticon style prison will be closing down. The physical panopticons are diminishing and the digital panopticons are multiplying. As you stated we now create our own panopticons rather than have them created for us. Many times activity on the social media sites has been used as evidence at trial to get convictions of many kinds. It has been used to take away people’s own liberty interest whether it be being sent to prison or held in a hospital and forced psychotropic medications, I have observed this in practice. Information is the most powerful tool this generation has and to live a modern lifestyle is to be observed, by who that is the question. Often you do not get to pick the audience that is observing you.


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