Spectacle and Surveillance

The Panopticon

I’ve been considering the inter-relationship between Bentham’s Panopticon, the society of the spectacle and the steady creep of surveillance culture.

The most unsettling feature of the Panopticon design is that inmates never know whether they are being observed and so consequently behave as if they are.  Bentham’s design was intended for public institutions; schools, hospitals, asylums, prisons and was an expression of his utilitarian thinking.

I think the theory of the Panopticon has been adopted by the wider culture and is a theoretical model of management in public institutions.  Take education. Schools now operate under the threat of inspection, always on high alert in anticipation of the ultra-punitive surveillance of Ofsted.  There are ‘rehearsals’ for inspections taking place all the time with everybody expected to behave as if they are being observed in compliance with directive policy. The risk of being found wanting is high with punishment being a key motivating factor in ‘improving standards.’

More insidious than the theoretical implementation of surveillance in the work place is the adoption of surveillance as a model of on-line social interaction via social media. Do we exist if we are not being liked and shared constantly? The erosion of the boundary between public and private space is more or less complete with no aspect of human interaction being regarded as a matter of privacy. The urge to participate in the spectacle of social media is compelling. Removing oneself or reducing contact with the arena is difficult and requires self control and the informed decision to not participate in what is often little more than a circus.

At a more mundane but equally concerning level is the routine way in which we are now expected to hand over personal details to organisations without question.  Only last night, I was expected to give my personal details when buying theatre tickets with cash and was told the computer system would not give me a ticket unless I was compliant. I refused to comply and was given a ticket anyway.  Why on earth should a theatre have my personal details in what is an impersonal transaction? It doesn’t make any material difference to theatre X where I live or what my date of birth happens to be.

Of course this is all about power; power at the micro and macro levels. In what is an increasingly Orwellian state we are handing over more and more of our personal power, whether by choosing to live in the Panopticon of social media or by unthinkingly giving our details to anyone who asks for them or by contributing to the society of the spectacle by engaging in public life as if it were a circus. This benefits those who are watching, primarily the advertising industry and the state. Acts of refusal  are healthy for our personal autonomy and are to be encouraged. Next time someone asks you for your personal details, try saying no.

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