The Limits of Panopticism
I find it puzzling that panopticism still holds on as a dominant (though modified) paradigm for analyzing contemporary surveillance trends.
First, panoptic surveillance is principally surveillance of human beings by human beings. Second, panoptic surveillance is uni-directional. The surveillance is always of the inmate by the guard. Third, panoptic surveillance achieves its aim when the inmate becomes self-monitoring, self-directing their behavior according to the published norms of the institution. For Foucault, the inmate’s awareness that they are under constant surveillance and their awareness of the norms for correct behavior are critical to this process.
Contemporary surveillance milieus undermine these basic panoptic structures. For example, weather patterns in the South Atlantic and the Caribbean are monitored in the United States by the government agency, NOAH – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I appreciate this as a resident of Miami, since this surveillance assumes critical importance during hurricane season. Here weather surveillance and the storm simulations are generated through algorithmic climatic modeling are for the welfare of human beings but the surveillance is not conducted by human beings nor is it surveillance of human beings.
The global system for disease surveillance is also principally of non-human agents. Funded and managed by the CDC and WHO the Global Disease Detection Program monitors and records the presence of certain classes of microbes worldwide with the specific aim of monitoring zoonotic agents, i.e., originating from animal hosts. The success of surveillance of this type of microbe depends on isolating the microbes from their carriers, which can be both human and animal. However very little work has been done on the nature of the monitoring of these human/animal/microbial surveillance hybrids or the technological processes involved in their detection and documentation.
Second, surveillance is clearly no longer one way. For Bentham and Foucault, guards in the tower conduct surveillance of the backlit inmates whose activity in their cells is transparent to their gaze. However, in today’s surveillance contexts the “inmates” not only hold the cameras but take footage of the guards themselves. For instance, in the wake of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing the F.B.I. actively solicited photos and video shot by citizens and private businesses with CCTV cameras on Boylston Street for the sake of generating leads in the investigation. Also, from the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Missouri to the very recent shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis raw video recordings taken by ordinary citizens have led to cases of successful legal action against law enforcement officers, the restructuring of some police departments, and a sustained, national debate around policing and race in the United States.
Thirdly, the effectiveness of the panopticon stems both from the visibility of the inmates to the gaze of the guards and the inmate’s constant awareness of the institution’s published directives for their behavior. The aim of this double awareness is coercive, prompting the inmate toward becoming self-directing, guiding their own behavior.
However, in the absence of the awareness of being watched or the presence of meaningful norms can one speak effectively, as Bentham and Foucault do, of surveillance acting as a machine for producing disciplined behaviors? In a government report submitted to the U.K. Home Office in 2005 on the efficacy of surveillance systems deployed in Great Britain, the authors conclude:
the majority of the schemes evaluated did not reduce crime and even where there was a reduction this was mostly not due to CCTV; nor did CCTV schemes make people feel safer, much less change their behavior.
Though the authors acknowledge that CCTV surveillance functioned as a limited tool in the hands of law enforcement as a means for evidence collection (after the fact) the analysts judged the payoff even here was minimal. Similarly American cities like New York, Chicago, and Atlanta have also experienced surprisingly limited results despite exorbitant ongoing expenditures on vast surveillance grids. As circumstances surrounding the March 22nd, 2016 Brussels airport bombing have revealed, unaccounted for elements as simple as a nom de guerre, a misspelled name, or a discarded jacket frustrate both the tracking and predictive features of such systems.
Even detecting individuals already flagged by the system by law enforcement can be notoriously unreliable unless the number of persons actually under surveillance is greatly limited and environmental conditions are optimum. An older gentleman of Arab American descent has a much greater likelihood of triggering calls for more scrutiny by the system than a 20-something Caucasian woman already flagged by the system’s software as a person of interest. As Introna and Wood (2004, 188) have shown the error rate for the software that comes standard with CCTV cameras increases considerably in the kinds of conditions one might find in an urban setting or a busy airport.