The 18th century social theorist, Jeremy Bentham, would be amazed if he could see how his dreams have become manifest in the 21st century. And though he is best known for his philosophy of Utilitarianism, one of his lesser known projects has achieved far greater success than he might have imagined.
Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, Bentham worked on schemes to profit from the public purse (much like his present-day ideological progeny). One brainchild, concocted in the early 1880s, was his plan for a prison that could be managed by a minimal staff thereby allowing him, as the government contracted jailer, to reap maximum profit from the concession.
The "Panopticon" as Bentham called it -- after the Greek mythological figure Panoptes, a giant with one hundred eyes- was a circular construction with an observation tower at its hub. The cells were arranged all around the circumference of the outer ring and lacked a solid inner wall which was replaced by bars, allowing a few guards in the central tower to oversee and manage the many prisoners surrounding them. One key feature of his plan was using “blinds and other contrivances” to conceal the guards from detainees, such that none would know who was being watched at any given moment.
This layout was supposed to foster “the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence” and by that deter mischief among inmates. Never realized in his own time, due to the efforts of a NIMBY landowner whose interference blocked its construction, the Panopticon still earned Bentham a tidy sum from the British Parliament for his trouble. While some later prisons were influenced by his design, the nearest brick and mortar facsimile of the original plan was the Presidio Modelo in Cuba.
In the first two decades of our third millennium, another panoptic-inspired structure has come into its own. Nearly 140 years after Jeremy Bentham cooked up the idea of a system for unobserved, "all-seeing" surveillance and control of subjects by relatively few overseers, Western technology has provided an all-purpose iteration of his invention. This latest version has no walls, bars or observation tower, and is not limited to jails or workhouses.
In 1948, mathematician Norbert Wiener, inspired by the French term cybernétique, derived from the Greek κῠβερνήτης (kubernêtês) for “ruler” or “controller”, coined the English word “cybernetics”. The term remained an obscure neologism until the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s when it hit the mainstream. Presently, at least 368 compound words incorporate the "cyber-" prefix.
Considering the ubiquity of the information matrix known as "cyberspace," it is clearly an unparalleled mechanism of surveillance and control. As with Bentham's Panopticon, through contract management with private concerns, a relatively small number of people are monitoring and manipulating vast populations while raking in huge sums. If you are having trouble with the monitoring and manipulation connotations of this discussion, consider the fact that our televisions and mobile devices are listening to us, while Facebook and Twitter censor user content.
How long before every electronic device is connected to the "Internet of Things" (IoT) for our “convenience”? But whose convenience will they serve? Banks peddle debit cards as a "convenience," but how convenient are they if the power goes out? From cellular phones and fitness trackers monitoring movement, to digital antennae in your socks so you never lose another during laundry, the truth is that monitoring and manipulation have become so complete and surreptitious most of us are unaware of the shortening leash we are on.
In the Foreword to his 1947 book, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley offered a sobering prediction:
“It’s probable that all the world’s governments will be more or less completely totalitarian even before the harnessing of atomic energy; that they will be totalitarian during and after the harnessing seems almost certain. Only a large-scale popular movement toward decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism. At present there is no sign that such a movement will take place.”
Centralized power and a prescribed cult-like belief in officially accredited “experts” rather than individual discernment are undeniable features of our present culture. Add ever expanding state welfare rolls and overall dependence on integrated electronic information systems and the picture crystallizes. Now more than ever, governments have the power -- directly and indirectly through contracted proxies -- to dominate the economic, political, and social activities of the governed.
Today’s “Electric Eye” at the peak of civilization’s pyramid enjoys unprecedented powers of observation and direction. Thanks to a tradition of technological innovation focused on concentrating oversight and control into ever fewer hands, we have resurrected the hundred-eyed monster of Mythology. The spirit of Bentham’s technological design for a correctional facility informs the very organization of our present society. In a sense, we are all his prisoners now.
Perhaps it is all for the “greatest good for the greatest number” as Bentham’s utilitarian ideal recommends. But the problem of who decides or calculates what that “greatest good” may be is a salient consideration. After all, given the ease and facility of management which the modern-day electronic Panopticon grants its warden, the question of who sits in the control tower is not inconsequential.
In such circumstances, cyberphobia may be a virtue.