Surveillance, the Panopticon and the Prison of your Mind

Freedom. We all think that we’ve got it. We all want to have it. But can we truly, confidently say that we are “free”? Rousseau famously once said “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. In last month’s blog we looked at how free will may in fact be an illusion in a pretty fundamental sense – that is, in the sense that our experience of being able to choose between path a or path b is an illusory one; the choice was never ours to make in the first place. In this blog post we’ll reign in the focus a little, and talk about freedom in a less abstract sense. We’re going to talk about how powers outside of ourselves can limit our freedom, and, in a sense, can turn our own minds into a kind of prison.

Many of us suspect that there are powers acting on us in various ways so as to constrain our freedom. We know there are explicit rules, regulations, and systems of power in place to stop us from acting in certain ways. If you murder someone you’re aware that the police are likely to track you down, and that you’re likely to spend most of your life in prison. To many of us (most of us, one would hope!) this does not feel overly constraining. Murder is not particularly high on most of our agendas. The power of the law feels generally acceptable because it is pretty explicit about what is permitted and what is not, and, as such, we can challenge these laws if we feel they are outdated. Yes, we may disagree with some laws, but when we do, we can debate in our parliaments and legislatures whether these laws are unjust and need to be reformed. As long as the law remains honest, explicit and just in exerting power upon us, we do not feel that it harms our freedom to a substantial degree.

But what if there was a way that external powers (such as governments) could control us not just from the outside – but could actually come to nestle within our own minds? What if our choices, our freedom – our very thoughts themselves – could be controlled from within. It would be as if a tiny alien had implanted itself within our own heads and was influencing our choices, whilst we still believed it was ourselves who were in control. It’s a pretty menacing prospect isn’t it? An external power taking control of you, your-self, and yet you wouldn’t even know it. Well, unfortunately, certain philosophers – specifically, my boy, Michel Foucault – have suggested that this is very much what is happening to us in our day to day lives.

Now, Foucault was a pretty cool guy. He was a bald-headed, turtleneck-wearing bespectacled French historian, ethicist, social theorist, philosopher and – I would say – a poet. When you read his work you’re confronted with a work of philosophy but also an immense literary creation. I’m a big fan. His works tend to analyse spheres of human life traditionally neglected by philosophy – exploring themes of madness, punishment, and sexuality. His historical analyses of these unusual topics have led some people to claim that he is not a philosopher. Right. I have some pretty choice words for these people, although this blog is not, perhaps, such a wise place to air them. Feel free to message me directly if you want to hear me wax-vulgarly-poetic.  Anyway… I digress. Foucault is important to this blog post, because Foucault discusses how external powers utilise surveillance technology to create a prison within one’s mind.

Foucault illustrates this beautifully through an analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s perfect prison – the “Panopticon”. The Panopticon was a prison in which all cells were arranged in a circle around a central tower, within which guards were stationed who could observe all the prisoners at all times. The prisoners were always being watched, and thus (so the theory goes) they would always behave themselves under the fear that any misdemeanour would be seen and punished by the guards. The really clever part was that eventually one would not even need to station a guard in the tower to watch the prisoners – the prisoners themselves would start to modify their own behaviour because they believed that they were being observed. That is, the guards all-seeing-gaze starts to become internalised, as the prisoners modify their behaviour to match the guard’s expectations, even if there were actually no guard present in reality. Within the prisoner’s minds, an external power system had become internalised. The prison, that was once an external expression of power through its concrete walls and iron bars, had gained a new, more insidious, internal expression of power, through its ability to raise esoteric, mental walls within a person’s mind.

The Panopticon

“Why should this worry me?” you think. “I’m not a prisoner – I’m certainly not in the Panopticon – so why is this relevant to my life?”. Well, Foucault claims that in a certain sense we are all in a kind of Panopticon – that is, we have all started to modify our behaviours to match the expectations of certain external powers even if they are not actually watching! For example, clocking in and out at work allows your boss to observe whether or not you are late for work. This simple act of surveillance subtly shapes your behaviours, and increases the chance that you make it into work on time, as you know your boss may know – and may punish you –  if you are in fact late. Your boss doesn’t even need to be monitoring your attendance – the very fact that they have the power to do this affects your decision to get to work on time. This internalisation of power is so subtle that we tend not to even realise that it is shaping our choices. These expressions of power that invade our subjectivity seem almost natural to us. Sure, they may be benign enough – they may encourage you to get to work or school on time – but they also have the potential to be malicious.

In Britain it’s poignant to think about this in terms of the omniscience of CCTV. There doesn’t even need to be an operator observing the inputs of these CCTV cameras, the very threat of surveillance is often enough to shape our behaviours. Now, if you’re a law abiding citizen, this may not bother you too much. But imagine if our society was suddenly overtaken by a Fascist government who would execute anyone who disagreed with their policies. This government would not need to be watching everyone to have an effect upon their behaviours, the very threat of surveillance would be enough to make certain choices – such as conforming to the regime – more appealing than others. In such a circumstance the government has invaded our minds and controls us (to a certain extent) from within. An external power has become internalised, affecting our choices, and with it our freedom (and subjectivity itself) comes under threat.

So, your mind is – in some sense – a prison. Your choices are often affected by the potential for surveillance – a potential which causes you to become like your own prison guard, as you modify your behaviour in line with expectations that are not entirely your own. A more generous commentary may perhaps describe your mind as more like a school, under the watchful gaze of a teacher, whose expectations encourage you to change your behaviour for the good of yourself as well as for the good of society. Make what you will of the choice of the metaphor.

The threat of surveillance (in the most general sense) is everywhere – at your workplace, in school, on the street, in your family household. Its influence on your behaviour has potential for good and for evil. It can both help you and harm you. With that in mind, I would suggest that the moral of this analysis is to become aware of who is shaping your choices, what their agenda is, and what potential for abuse their influence holds. Are you choosing something because you genuinely want to choose it, or because you have internalised the expectations of someone else, who may or may not be watching?

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