"Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom." ~ Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
At the turn of the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham proposed a design for a prison. He called it the Panopticon. It contained a central point from which prison warders were able to watch all the prisoners simultaneously, while remaining themselves unobserved. Bentham claimed two important advantages for this design. Firstly it would reduce costs (prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or not, so warders would not have to be on duty all the time). Secondly the prisoners (potentially under scrutiny at all times) would improve their behaviour. Their morals would be reformed as a consequence.
It is all too easy to draw a parallel between Bentham's ideal prison and today's world. Most obviously there are the "safety" cameras which enforce the rule of the road, congestion charge cameras which record comings and goings through swathes of London, Oyster cards which follow the movements of passengers on the underground and buses. A less structured system – for the moment – are the many private surveillance cameras. These have the potential of watching our actions wherever we are – if only their information could be co-ordinated, collated and analysed. And that time is not too far away.
Then there are initiatives by local government to watch our rubbish disposal habits and home improvement activities.
This is all direct observation. But there is also indirect surveillance: mobile phone use, money transactions, the whole fingerprint, DNA database and identity card project. In China, information provided by internet service provider Yahoo was used to convict and imprison a writer who sent an email to an American journalist detailing media restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities.
We are not watched all the time. But we can be watched whenever the authorities feel like it. So will our morals be reformed? And will that lead to a better society?
But wait – Bentham's design was intended for a prison, for convicted criminals. Is that what we have all become in our new surveillance world? If we are caught on camera, the consequences of accepting a quick fine and a criminal record are far less risky than arguing the case in court. As a result, more and more of us become criminalised.
Is there an advantage in having a better behaved population? And to obtain this, is permanent observation the price we have to pay?
Women whipped in the street
Again, we must pause for thought. The Taliban government in Afghanistan imposed moral values on the population. The religious police found women whose dress or behaviour fell below their standards and whipped them in the street. Is this the sort of justice to which we aspire? And let us not forget that until the 1960s incautious (male) homosexuals in our own country caught by the authorities were put on trial and sent to prison. They would have found it harder to be discreet if the Panopticon society that is being built now had existed then. They would have found it much harder to fight for their rights. Most would have become criminalised by default; the rest would have been forced to stay below the radar.
These are just two examples which demonstrate that authorities, when they think they have a right (duty) to improve morals, become both oppressive and dangerous.
Authoritarian governments have always sought ways to keep their population under control but in the past British governments curbed their controlling instincts. In 1898 an effort to treat anarchism as an international offence was crushed by the reluctance of Britain Switzerland and Belgium to participate. Interestingly the move was sponsored by the USA. Over the next few years the anarchist movement withered away as its efforts to disrupt society by, often suicidal, terrorist acts failed to generate sufficient following and support.
Why do the authorities feel justified in constructing this new high tech Panopticon? Why do they treat the population that they "serve" as prisoners, branding more and more of us as criminals? I believe there is a reason for this – but more of that another time.