Enter the Panopticon10 Mar 2016
In 1790, Jeremy Bentham published his plans for the “panopticon”, his design for a new kind of prison that would leverage surveillance to ensure well-behaved prisoners. The panopticon was laid out so that all cells were visible from a central monitoring station, from which a hidden guard could easily watch any inmate, without being observed himself.
Bentham expected the panopticon approach to improve inmate behaviour at low cost: inmates would obey the rules because they could never be certain when the observer was watching them or not.
The developed world is rapidly turning into a digital panopticon.
Your trail through digital media is 100% tracked.
- Every web site you visit is traceable, via ad cookies or “like” badges, or Google analytics.
- Every web search is tracked via cookies or even your own Google login info.
In some respects this tracking is still “opt in” since it is possible, if undesirable, to opt out of digital culture. Drop your email, eschew the web, leave behind your smart phone.
But your trail in the physical work is increasingly being tracked too.
- If you carry a cell phone, your location is known to within one mobile “cell”, as long as the device is powered.
- If you use a credit or debit card, or an ATM, you are localised to a particular point of sale when you make a purchase.
- If you use a car “safety” system like OnStar your location is known while you drive.
Again, these are active signals, and you could opt out. No cell phone, cash only, no vehicles after 1995.
But as I discussed this year in my talk about the future of geo we are rapidly moving beyond the point of “opt out”.
- Within our lifetimes, most urban areas will be under continuous video surveillance, and more importantly,
- within our lifetimes, the computational power and algorithms to make sense of all those video feeds in real time will be available.
We take for granted that we have some moments of privacy. When I leave the house and walk to pick up my son at school, for 15 minutes, nobody knows where I am. Not for much longer. All too soon, it will be possible for someone in a data center to say “show me Paul” and get a live picture of me, wherever I may be. A camera will see me, and a computer will identify me in the video stream: there he is.
Speculative fiction is a wonderful thing, and there’s a couple books I read in the last year that are worth picking up for anyone interested in what life in the panopticon might be like.
- Rainbows End by Verner Vinge (2007) is an exploration of the upcoming world of augmented reality and connectivity. In many ways Vinge leaps right over the period of privacy loss: his characters have already come to terms with a world of continuous visibility.
- The Circle by David Eggers (2013) jumps into a world right on the cusp of the transition from our current “opt-in” world of partial privacy to one of total transparency, of life in the panopticon.
Both books are good reads, and tightly written, though in the tradition of science fiction the characterizations tend to be a little flat.
The Guardian also has a recent (2015) take on the digital panopticon:
In many ways, the watchtower at the heart of the panopticon is a precursor to the cameras fastened to our buildings – purposely visible machines with human eyes hidden from view.
Once you come to terms with the idea that, at any time, you could be surveilled, the next question is: does that knowledge alter your behaviour? Are you ready for the panopticon? I’m not sure I am.