Thursday, November 22, 2012
Welcome to the Panopticon
The Panopticon is a prison design where a handful of watchers can keep an eye on many prisoners. The psychology behind the design is that the prisoners cannot tell when they are being watched. They then behave like they are always being watched. One person can control the behavior of many.
Our surveillance society, with cameras in more and more places, has turned our world into a giant Panopticon.
The watchers want us to believe they see us at all times. They don’t. Think about it. Lot’s of those cameras are getting old. How long does your electronic devices stay in top shape? Many of these cameras are mounted in harsh environments. Quite a few no longer work, but we are supposed to assume they do.
Sometimes the cameras aren’t even real -just cheap fake dummies. Remember, the idea is not to actually watch people, but to change people’s behavior by making them believe they are watched.
Remember your first digital camera? Piece of crap, wasn’t it? Many of the older cameras have very low resolution. Combine that with security tapes that have been reused and reused, and everything becomes a blurry mess.
Let’s, however, assume that the equipment is top notch, the recordings are the best in high end digital, and actual human beings are watching on monitors. Assume that these cameras are being focused on potential criminals instead of hot women. Can the camera prevent crime? No. They can only record things that may or may not get used to prosecute after the fact. There is no SWAT team hiding in a closet ready to apprehend a mugger.
In a massive public action, the cameras can only watch. Later analysis can be used to pick faces out of the crowd, but what happens when the camera records 3000 people wearing Guy Fawkes masks? Ski masks? Large brimmed hats? Heavy makeup? Powerful infrared lasers that blind the cameras?
The surveillance state only works when the threat of punishment is real. If the state can only look but cannot act, it is only a sad joke. Usually punishing a few high profile cases keeps everyone in line. What if a lot of people have little to lose? When thousands break the law, only a few get punished and the odds of getting away with it go way up.
Another thing the surveillance state did not count on was people’s changing attitude towards privacy. Us old farts remember privacy, but the young ones don’t. In fact, through social media, they broadcast their every move. What are cameras to them? Coupled with little sense of shame, the Panopticon loses its psychological hold. Things once kept secret are now speedily posted on YouTube. They don’t care. Blackmail has no handle on them.
As government resources become more and more constrained, gaps will grow in the surveillance net. Faulty equipment will not get replaced. Maintenance becomes spotty. Screen watchers are laid off, requiring the remaining staff to monitor too many screens. Power failures can make the whole system go dark.
The modern Panopticon state is getting larger and larger, but ironically, it’s real power is getting weaker. Plenty of cracks for naughty little folk to play in.