September 19, 2007

panoptic musings

To what extent do modern forms of surveillance exhibit panoptic effects? Within our own lifetimes, we have witnessed the introduction, adoption, and now widespread use of video and digital surveillance cameras. Do surveillance cameras provide the panoptic effect that Foucault identified was a result of certain forms of disciplinary architecture? In the panopticon, individuals were physically and visually separated from one another, but were constantly visible by an unseen seer. The panopticon disrupted the normal see/being seen dyad. Individuals within the panoption are aware that they may always be seen, even if they themselves cannot see who is looking at them. This was the genus of the panopticon's design.

The design of the panopticon conveys
power and serves as a disciplinary
mechanism. Those within the
panopticon are always visible, can
always be seen, every action may be
observed, and there is no privacyfrom the unseen looker. Even though
they cannot see who sees them, individuals are fully aware of theirvisibility. You better be good, cause "they're watching."

Foucault stated that the major effect of the panopticon was to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the functinoing of power (p. 201).

Do modern forms of public surveillance induce panoptic effects?

Digital and video surveillance is everywhere - in stores, on campus, on public roads and streets, in parking lots, in restaurants, at home... it is not uncommon to see many digital and video cameras during the course of a regular day. My apartment complex has its surveillance system broadcast to all its residents on television cable channel 87. There are over a dozen cameras in and around my aparment residence, and, if i am interested, i can watch any one of them while laying on my couch sipping whiskey. Driving around my neighborhood, I notice cameras on almost every streetlight. My favorite bar has at least 3 visible cameras. On campus, I notice cameras outside buildings, and as I enter, I see more. I grab some lunch and sit down, and as I pray to God that my professor may grant me grace, I see another camera above my head.

Our lives are saturated with the presence of digital and video surveillance cameras.

Here is a portion of a surveillance camera map of downtown Philadelphia near univeristy city. An undergraduate class at the University of Pennsylvania documented over 500 cameras in thier neighborhood! They gave up trying to continue documentation: they couldn't keep up.

Does the presence of such a great density of surveillance cameras assure the automatic functioning of power that Foucault stated was a major effect of the panopticon? Surveillance cameras indicate the obviousness of our visibility. Cameras are for LOOKING, WATCHING, OBSERVING. We can't see who's looking at us. We are in a disrupted dyad of seeing/being seen. We know we are visible, yet we are not able to see our observer.

Has the obviousness of our visibility affected our behavior? In my own life, I have largely stopped noticing the cameras; they have largely become invisible. I pass them, paying little attention. They are so prevalent, they have become camoflaged; they have become installed in the urban landscape.

Perhaps there is something not compatable with public surveillance and Foucault's addressed panoptic effects. In the panopticon, individuals are enclosed, partitioned, segmented, and distributed, often into spaces that are small and easily manageable. Originally it was essential to panoptic power that individuals be separated from each other. Public surveillance fails to display this form. Surveillance cameras often observe open spaces, large spaces with many people. Perhaps panoptic effects can be generalizeable, or even extended - certainly as Spitzack demonstrates, all that is required for panoptic effects is that the individual internalize the its logic, and if this happens, we can exibit separation, even from our own selves, regardless of where we are.


Dan said...

I believe that one way of looking at the question regarding the current surveillance situation facing society is to compare it to advertising. A side by side comparison of the two create very similar ideas in our minds. How many people can recall the number of cameras that tape them throughout the day? Likewise, what about the number of advertisements that you see? What they have both come down to is the fact that the over-abundance or over-saturation of both of these items creates a mental block that seemingly makes them non-existent to our consciousness.

In that regard, I question their effectiveness in today's society as this constant surveillance may even be considered a hindrance due to its prevalent nature.

George said...

Panoptic gaze and surveillance seems to be related, but different, topics. As both Dan and Brett pointed out, the abundance of surveillance cameras is a method of seeing, while the panopticon, for me, seems to be a way of being seen.
The differences between the two are understandable when one considers the position implied by each. The panopticon emphasizes the object of the gaze, in this case the prisoner. Similarly, thinking of internalizing the panoptic gaze is a way of perceiving the self. The panopticon, as a prison structure, is an attempt by social powers to encourage self regulation, by placing in the prisoner/subject an external viewpoint, that of being watched and surveyed. This reminds me of the line from Santa Clause is Coming to Town, "He sees you when you are sleeping/he knows when you're awake/he knows if you've been bad or good/so be good for goodness sake." While the song lacks the physical structure of a prison, it serves the same purpose, the instilling of self-regulation and constant behavioral vigilance into a subject.
Surveillance cameras, however, emphasis the mode of watching. Where the panopticon is concerned, the mode of watching is twofold. It involves the potential of a guard watching, unseen, a prisoner. It also involves the prisoner watching themselves. The surveillance camera works on a subtly different level. It removes the watcher from the presence of the one who is watched. The guard in the panoptic prison is present, and although he may or may not be looking in the direction of the prisoner at any particular time, the threat of his presence still lingers.
Surveillance cameras remove the threat of presence and make it unknowable--the person watching may be in the next room or the next country, and as such, their ability to directly engage the individual and confront them could be limited.
Perhaps the removal of the presence from the mode of seeing in the case of surveillance cameras, coupled with the possibility no one is actually looking (in the case of the guards in the panopticon) is enough for people to disregard the panoptic logic implied by each.
It also warrants pointing out that, as technology advances, people are no longer even involved in watching the surveillance cameras and that computers become the watchers in some cases. It may be that surveillance cameras are not serving panoptic functions, but rather, are serving the function of a historian.

Through A Retina Darkly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Through A Retina Darkly said...

Great post, Brett!!! And the responses!

Is that second image an actual prison? It appears to be. And it is interesting to me that it is indeed modelled on Bentham's diagram: central tower with flood lights directed outward; cells, all open to the tower, but isolated from one another. But in this case, I suspect there is always a watcher--24/7.

This makes me wonder if we don't become surveillance-weary. I wonder if the brute fact of being constantly before a camera and potentially watched by multiple seers causes some sort of fatigue. I wonder if people just decide they don't need to police themselves any longer, since someone else is doing it for them. Or if perhaps a sort of herd mentality sets in: there are too many of us and not enough watchers, so perhaps I will be one of those that gets away...?

Meg said...

just a quick thought but I have to tell you that because of our discussions in class I am much more aware of where "camera's" can make you crazy..even from a verbal perspective as if they can hear what you are saying too.