Modern Panopticons

News that US intelligence has monitored vast quantities of French telecommunications data and may even have tapped the phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel, prompted a rare admission from the White House this week that the disclosures “raised legitimate questions for our friends and allies.” As President Obama began apologizing to his most important trans-Atlantic allies, parliamentarians in Canada were pressing their own government to explain why the national intelligence agency had been capturing and analysing data from the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Ever since the British phone-hacking scandals forced the once invulnerable Rupert Murdoch to close one of his most lucrative tabloids, scores of news stories have confirmed the idea that we are now living in a hi-tech Panopticon. This was the ominous name given by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in 1787, to a design for institutional buildings that would allow a small number centrally located gatekeepers a privileged overview of their charges, and accord them the “power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

Bentham demonstrated that a prison fashioned along these lines could function as an idealized penitentiary, a “mill to grind rogues honest,” but he also saw that it could be used for hospitals, mental asylums and to increase productivity in factories. The key to the Panopticon was the control: “The centrality of the presiding person’s situation will have its use at all events,” he observed, “for the purpose of direction and order at least, if for no other.”

Two centuries later, in a memorable analysis of Bentham’s ideas, the French historian of ideas Michele Foucault argued that modernity had dispensed with overt displays of control such as public floggings and executions once it realized how efficiently Benthamite methods could control a restive citizenry. Presciently, Foucault noticed that in Panopticism — his name for what it felt like to be constantly observed by the state — “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.” The release of KGB archives vindicated Foucault’s description of how badly surveillance erodes trust. In fact nearly every twentieth century flirtation with Panopticism has proved that once people know that they may have lost their privacy, the fear never goes away.

The German public’s response to the new allegations has been instructive. An editorial in one prominent newspaper chided Chancellor Merkel for her passivity in the face of earlier leaks about US espionage. “It is really revealing that Merkel reacts energetically only now,” wrote Die Zeit, “when she is presumably directly affected. That should have been her duty when it was millions of NSA intrusions into the private sphere of German citizens.” Another commentator wrote: “One doesn’t dare imagine how Obama’s secret services deal with enemy states, when we see how they treat their closest allies.”

After the Snowden leaks, the US government and some of its allies have come to seem less like mature democracies than the national security states they overcame in the Cold War. Each new story about intelligence gathered for questionable ends underscores the suspicion that these governments harbour Benthamite dreams of the power of mind over mind, and possess a dangerous self-confidence in their ability to establish direction and order for a large majority.

Given the relative technological backwardness of the Caribbean, one hardly dares to imagine how easily some of these agencies may have mined secrets from our governments and corporations. Even if they haven’t, the loss of trust produced by the ongoing embarrassments in France, Germany, Mexico and elsewhere, make it difficult for us not to fear that we are being watched by a Big Brother, American or otherwise.

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