The Panopticon was 18th-Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's concept of the ideal prison. It consists of two components: a central tower in which the jailers reside, invisible to the prisoners; and a ring of cells around the central tower in which the inmates toil, behind bars that do not, however, obstruct the view of the jailers into each and every cell. We live in a Digital Panopticon.
French social critic Michel Foucault based his theory of self-censorship as a means of social control on the Panopticon. Commenting on Bentham, he wrote:
...The major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow.
Foucault then observed that in contemporary society, the media, our means of communication, have become a modern form of the Panopticon, with most of us in the prisoners' ring. Foucault died before the Internet became a reality. Had he lived to see the excesses of personal revelation and voyeurism associated with Internet use, he would have considered his theory proven a million-fold. The Internet has become our Digital Panopticon. Powerful interests can invisibly record and analyze our every conversation, domestic and international -- and without the force of law to restrain them or, as in the case of the Bush Administration, with active encouragement to violate the law -- they do so, often.
Today, a filibuster took place in the U.S. Senate, led by Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd. You probably didn't hear about it watching TV, reading the or listening to the radio this weekend. If you had, you'd have known that what was at issue was a request by President Bush to grant AT&T neé SBC and Verizon -- two oligopolists that control most of this nation's telecommunications links, including the Internet's “backbone” fiber -- legal immunity from charges that they conspired with the National Security Agency to illegally supply the NSA with real-time and archival access to telephone calls, email, and all other forms of digital communications. Only Qwest, the third oligopolist, resisted the urge to collaborate without a judicial warrant. Those familiar with SBC (formerly Southwestern Bell, which acquired the shell of AT&T and then took its name), will not be surprised: it's long enjoyed playing sheriff, ever eager to participate in law enforcement, sometimes almost without being asked. Verizon's capitulation is no surprise, either: as General Telephone, junior partner to the Bell System, it always toed the prevailing Bell line. Now it's AT&T's line. Nothing's changed.
Dodd's filibuster succeeded! When time ran out and the Senators began wanting to go home for the holidays, Senate President pro tem Harry Reid pulled the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) with the offending provision. The President says, if you're a huge corporation -- a more powerful element of the modern industrial state than the government that supposedly regulates it -- you can illegally collaborate with giant spy agencies to deprive Americans and those with whom they communicate, here and abroad, of their privacy...the essential condition of free and honest speech. What will the Senate say when it eventually gets to vote, after the New Year?
Speaking with colleagues and friends here and overseas, I'm made aware more frequently than I'd like that we share a Dark Secret: we're being snooped, we know it, and sheepishly, we live with it. We are being snooped by corporations, we are being snooped by government, and in a figurative way, we are being snooped even by each other. It's become big business for startups to devise ever better ways of disrobing oneself in public view and conversely, being able to spy on one another. Many technologists and interaction designers are making careers of creating ever more invasive technologies and enabling their ease of use.
Our every utterance and writing, even our very ideas, can be swept up by a giant vacuum cleaner wielded by private interests and an oppressive government, working in collusion, apparently without fear of prosecution. Nothing can be done about it if the law cannot prevail. What's the effect on free speech and honest discourse of being surveilled, geospatially tracked, and represented by thick, information-rich dossiers kept secret from us? We all know the answer...and it isn't pretty, democratic, or much of a future. The new American experience of constant surveillance is deadening. And it will take only one insane President, someone out of touch with America's democratic ideals or enthralled by religious quackery, to put the machinery of surveillance to truly evil use. For all we know, it's already our reality. Why did I disconnect from Twitter and Spock? Maybe because, even if I'm as vulnerable as before, I don't want to aid, abet, or encourage others to exploit my personal information in untoward ways. I'm protecting my property and their souls. Plus, I'm not a techno-lemming.
Stealthy surveillance makes a mockery of our best designs. Take the iPhone, an icon of innovation: sold by Apple, that paragon of freedom, into the monopolistic grasp of AT&T, snitch to the most powerful. How can you design for a better tomorrow when the very things you design are put to such terrible use today? The Nazis had good design, too.
Where, today, were the voices of the web developers, designers, technologists, ethnographers, and other technologically smart and socially sophisticated individuals and their professional organizations as our communication birthright went on the auction block? There will be more votes in the Senate and the House. Live your life like you design for it. Speak out for corporate accountability, for privacy, and for freedom of speech. It's your turn now.