“No system of mass surveillance has existed in any society that we know of to this point that has not been abused.”– Edward Snowden
The Panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The design concept is to allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched. Even though no panopticon was built during Bentham’s lifetime, the principles he established on the panopticon prompted considerable discussion and debate. In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949), George Orwell wrote: “there was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment … you had to live … in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”
One of the fundamental principles of the Panopticon is round design and the presence of an “all-seeing eye”.
Although it is physically impossible for a single guard to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched over at all times. Thus, the inmates are effectively compelled to regulate their behaviour. Whereas the panopticon is the model for external surveillance, panopticism is a term introduced by French philosopher Michel Foucault to indicate a kind of internal surveillance. Foucault wrote, “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” This phenomenon, where people modify their behaviour because they know they are being watched, is known as The Hawthorne Effect.
The Hawthorne Effect
The “Hawthorne effect” was coined in 1958 by Henry Landsberger when he analysed the Hawthorne studies conducted between 1924 and 1932 at the Hawthorne Works, an electric factory outside Chicago. The Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to determine if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower light levels. The workers’ productivity improved when changes were made and slumped when the study ended. This gave rise to the assumption that the productivity gain occurred due to the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.
The Hawthorne effect of modifying behaviour can work both ways and positively and negatively impact society.
We are aware of or have heard rumblings of China’s well-established surveillance state and social credit system. However, think how you might feel if you were watched when you went out for that Christmas party with your friends. Or, as you took that family stroll down your main street to enjoy the Christmas lights, some drones hovered overhead. What about if every interaction with every person you ever met was tracked? Further still, imagine a database that profiled you, all your friends, acquaintances and your favourite coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Imagine that database ranked you based on the rankings of the people you chose to meet. Many of us might shrug our shoulders and think, “I have nothing to hide”. However, it is not just about where it starts but where does it end?
Whatever the impact on my life now as a forty-something, I wonder how a Panopticon state would have impacted my behaviour in my early twenties. I wonder what it will be like for my children and my grandchildren. I wonder how it would affect my weekly Thursday Thoughts if my credit rating were impacted for calling things out.
In a dystopian glimpse into a model surveillance state in Guiyang, China, The BBC interviewed a Guiyang resident artist and poet in China named Ji Feng. He describes the experience of being watched and how it alters how people act. “You can feel the eyes on you every day, invisible eyes following you so that no matter what you do, you always hesitate.”
While the introduction of surveillance will undoubtedly herald a crime reduction, what else might it bring? The use of surveillance technology beyond its original use case is called surveillance creep. In China, whether it was a surveillance creep or surveillance strategy, what started as crime prevention is now social credit rating. In an extension of credit scoring systems, the database incorporates all the financial and behavioural information the government can accumulate and distil it into a single number. A ‘social credit’ database is based on a rating algorithm. I am speculating how our behaviour might influence the algorithm. Eventually, it might incorporate our parents’ (and ultimately grandparents’) behaviour, media habits, health scores, diet, drinking habits, psychological evaluations, purchase histories, educational scores and whatever other information can determine a profile. See examples of data profiling from our recent episode with Jeff Desjardins from his book, “Signals”. See what Facebook/Meta knows about us when they cross-reference data with Instagram and Whatsapp with the data we provide them in a Faustian bargain for free usage. At what eventual cost?
The US civil liberties pressure group ACLU thinks China’s Citizen Scoring is a warning for Americans. Here in Ireland, we are at the beginning of this journey. Ireland’s Minister for Justice is on the verge of proposing a law to authorise garda use of Facial Recognition Technology, where a person’s face is permanently and irrevocably linked to their identity. FRT treats our faces like license plates, matching facial features to a database of images. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) are protesting the proposal.
The ICCL, like the ACLU, realise that where it begins needs to be considered carefully because we do not know where it will end. As we saw during the pandemic, crises are a perfect opportunity to rush through legislation.
We are seeing a global gradual introduction of surveillance in schools. This means children will become accustomed to such surveillance. We need to be wary of the water we jump into to avoid the fate of the boiling frog… (metaphor below for those who don’t know it)
If you place a frog in a pot of cold water and gradually simmer the water, the frog will float there placidly. The frog will not notice the slow temperature rise as the water heats up. It will grow used to the gradual change and allow itself to be boiled to death.
Food for Thought!