Thanks to Edward Snowden the veil has been lifted, if only slightly, from the latest incarnation of an ancient dream: complete power through total omniscience. From An, the great sky god of the Sumerians, to the heights of Mount Olympus, to the grandiose pretensions of the Benthams’ late eighteenth century Panopticon, to the pinnacle of Mount Doom, to J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI, to the secret precincts of the NSA, this dream of power through perfect vision has been the siren song of all humanity. As Tolkien penned in the early 1950’s, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them…”
German readers know better than most that however close this dream has come to reality, it has not long prevailed. It is up to us, all of us, to ensure that it does not prevail now. Our responses must summon political solutions that insist on democratic oversight of surveillance procedures, commercial solutions in which we reject companies that externalize responsibility for the consequences of their activities, and individuals who are willing to make a stand on what is right and what is wrong.
The Information Panopticon
That the dream is old and runs deep reminds us that it is not a product of any technology, and certainly not of computers or the Internet. Rather, it is a human constant that hovers in the shadows waiting to pounce on opportunities as they arise, century after century. I spent ten years, from 1978 to 1988, studying the computerization of the workplace, the basis for my first book, In the Age of the Smart Machine. It became clear to me back then that information technology was the next vehicle for the dream. I had read about the misadventures of naval engineer Samuel Bentham in Russia and his invention of the panopticon. Left in charge of Prince Potemkin’s estate in the southern territory recently annexed from the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Bentham faced the task of improving the efficiency of factories manned by a labor force of unwilling serfs and fragmented by a dozen languages of conquered peoples. His solution was a polygonal centripetal design with a central viewing hub that allowed a few managers to oversee a large workforce, while themselves remaining invisible.
A visit from his brother, the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy, ignited a larger ambition. Jeremy saw in his brother’s design a way to extract discipline and order from large populations of the unwilling in prisons, madhouses, factories, hospitals, schools, and poor houses. Bentham reasoned that ideal behavior could be achieved by perpetual inspection, and the panopticon offered the same result at a far lower cost: The continuous and unverifiable promise of inspection imposed a state of uncertainty upon the watched. He wrote, “ The next best thing” to being perpetually observed was that a person “at every instant, seeing reasons to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, should conceive himself to be so.”
The Daily Routine of Surveillance
By the mid-1980’s the factories and offices I studied were deeply imbued with computerized systems that had been designed to increase efficiency, improve factory process control, enhance communication, or streamline the administration of work flows. Gradually, I observed each one fall prey to the old dream, as supervisors, managers, and executives turned to the new flow of information to inspect and discipline individual behavior. Like Foucault, I saw the imaginative power of the panopticon at work, a wordless power that reached into the mind and body of each individual, preempting and shaping behavior before it was even a thought. One worker told me, “we know there is something that will tell on us exactly...so we hustle more,” while his managers fantasized about wall-sized screens that provided moment by moment detail on every facet of their operations, “ I can hit the buttons and see all the data I want.”