The concept of Panopticon is to allow a single watchman to observe all inmates without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. The designer-Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term. By now, this concept seems to be applicable to today’s government towards media outlets. Freedom of expression is under threat and, as a result, freedom of information is imperiled as well.
After reading the reports by PEN American Center, they raise the question of the harms caused by widespread surveillance in democracies, like the surveillance being conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency. “The NSA’s surveillance will damage the ability of the press to report on the important issues of our time,” note the report author team, “if journalists refrain from contacting sources for fear that their sources will be found out and harmed, or if sources conclude that they cannot safely speak to journalists and thus stay silent.”
According to the above survey, writers and journalists become more and more reluctant to research and write about controversial topics. “I have felt that even to comment on the Snowden case in an email would flag my email as worthy of being looked at,” one respondent said. “I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to avoid certain conversation topics in electronic emails out of concern that those communications may be surveilled,” said another.
With a mascot of a lidless panopticon eyeball dressed as government surveillance, it is worth thinking about how everyday surveillance changes our behavior. Assuming that all the communications among journalists, writers and sources are being monitored and have thus changed their behavior in many ways will certainly curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information. With the building-up panopticon system, journalists have to make a decision between paranoid vigilance and easy participation. Like Michel Foucault illustrate in his book Discipline and Punish, he offers an explanation for the type of “anonymous power” held by the operator of the central tower in the panopticon, suggesting that, “We have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way the surveillance is practiced.”
1. PEN American Center, “Chilling Effects:NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor”, November 12, 2013.
2. Foucault Michel, Discipline and Punishment, Vintage Books, New York: 1995: p. 198