Wouldn’t it be great if we could all work together for the greater good without expecting anything in return? Just think of the world we could build if everyone would just be open and honest and follow the rules. Yawn. It’s been tried before. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that even the early American settlers thought they could build the perfect society.
According to E. Shaskan Bumas, author of “Fictions of the Panopticon: Prison, Utopia, and the Out-Penitent in the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” for the original American colonists, the need for a prison in the New World was a colossal disenchantment. Quoting from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, he writes,” The first chapter is ‘The Prison-Door,’ the second sentence of which reads, ‘The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison,’ the latter a ‘black flower of civilized society.’” The first colonist envisioned a society where any justice that must be meted out would be so just and humane that the convicted would gratefully accept their sentences. So far, that hasn’t happened.
The problem for utopians, prison wardens, and evil dictators alike has always been how to control those who would rather not be controlled. Sure, abject violence works. Attila the Hun, Chairman Mao, and Robert Mugabe are fine examples of how leaders have used blood, guts, and gore to control people. But societies based on forced control never last long, and neither do their ambassadors of violence. Certainly, it would be much simpler (not to mention less messy) if people would just volunteer to be controlled, and if they could be happy about it, so much the better. Such a solution exists, and like it or not, you are part of it.
Can you see me now?
A panopticon is a type of gallery where everything is on display to everyone at all times. It is this idea of constantly being on display that led Jeremy Bentham to develop a new model for prisons. Bentham was the 19th century social theorist who is widely regarded as the father of modern welfare economics. He understood the connection between controlling people in an open society and controlling the incarcerated.
Called the panopticon prison, Bentham’s circular design had a mirrored tower in the middle. The cells had bars instead of walls. All inmates were visible at all times. However, there was no way for the inmates to know if someone was actually watching them from the mirrored guard tower. It was Bentham’s conjecture that inmates would behave better if they thought someone might be watching at all times, even if no one was. He was correct, and modern studies bear him out. People will be less candid and behave better when they believe they are being watched, even when the consequences of undesirable speech or behavior are minor.
Jeremy Bentham, like many of his contemporaries, was a utopian who ridiculed the promising American political philosophy. Instead of a system based on individual merit, Bentham envisioned a utilitarian society where a central government would make decisions that would have happy consequences for as many people as possible. Those who must suffer would do so willingly for the good of all. He wanted to build an open society where people would volunteer to be on display, sacrificing personal liberties like privacy for the greater good.
But how do you get people to march happily into a panopticon when they know that everyone can see everything they do? Even if you can get them to come willingly, how on earth can you watch everyone from everywhere all the time, or at least make people believe you can? Neither Jeremy Bentham nor any other utopian dreamer ever figured that out, but Wall Street and Washington D.C. sure did. Welcome to the American panopticon.
Smart Grid is part of a global initiative to manage information, all information. This is not some dire fictional prediction; it exists right now, right here in the United States. In 2010, the Secretary of the Treasury got the ball rolling by lending the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), a division of the Department of Energy, $3.25 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to implement Smart Grid.
According to IBM, Smart Grid is the best thing since buttered grits. Their website proudly proclaims: “The world is becoming interconnected. With a trillion networked thingscars, roadways, pipelines, appliances, pharmaceuticals and even livestockthe amount of information created by those interactions grows exponentially. All things are becoming intelligent. Algorithms and powerful systems can analyze and turn those mountains of data into actual decisions and actions that make the world work better. Smarter.”
This intelligent power grid gathers information about individual energy use via sensors embedded in the transmission lines and in homes and businesses. Power companies like General Electric, via WAPA, know what temperature you keep your home or business at. If you keep your domicile warmer or cooler than the temperature approved by the federal government, you pay more. For some, saving money on energy bills is worth sharing a little information with operators of the Smart Grid. But if such an arrangement makes you a little uneasy, just wait until you discover what other information you are sharing and with who.
What’s in your socks?
It’s estimated that by 2010 there were a billion electronic sensors per human, each one costing one ten-millionth of a cent. These sensors collect information and send it back to companies who are interested in how you’re spending your money. Michael Berger, a technology writer at nanowerk.com, explains why industry is excited about the possibilities of consumer-based panopticon technology:
Nanotechnology e-textiles for biomonitoring and wearable electronicsif current research is an indicator, wearable electronics will go far beyond just very small electronic devices or wearable, flexible computers. Not only will these devices be embedded in textile substrates but an electronics device or system could ultimately become the fabric itself. Electronic textiles (e-textiles) will allow the design and production of a new generation of garments with distributed sensors and electronic functions. Such e-textiles will have the revolutionary ability to sense, act, store, emit, and movethink biomedical monitoring functions or new man-machine interfaceswhile ideally leveraging an existing low-cost textile manufacturing infrastructure.
With panopticon technology, all “they” need are a few sensors to know what is in your refrigerator; how long you spend in the bathroom; if you smoke in your home; if you drink alcohol in your home; and how many people are in your home or business at any one time. Science fiction? Don’t bet on it.
The combination of the two most powerful panopticon technologies, Smart Grid and nano-sensors has led to the development of consumer goods that never stop communicating. Here’s a typical consumer-based scenario in the emerging American panopticon. You buy a pair of socks, using your credit or debit card (cash is already being discouraged). Because of Smart Grid and embedded nano-sensors, your house will be able to read the bar code on those socks you bought as you bring them through the door and add them to a list it keeps of your clothing choicessize, price, origin, when worn, etc.
The computer that controls your home’s thermostat and lights via Smart Gird also controls your wardrobe, budget, social habits, and even your eating habits. The refrigerator reads the bar codes on your food. Someone with access to that information knows when you eat, what you eat, what you paid for it, and how long something has been in the fridge. Not only are American consumers comfortable with this information being passed on to industry, they willingly offer up the information for free and pay huge sums for the digital devices needed to give the information away.
Of course, plenty of people don’t want to pay for the technology that watches them, opting instead for older automobiles, electronics, and household appliances. I know a few folks who only access the Internet from the public library. Tightwads after my own heart, for sure. But even if you don’t pay for the digital gadgets, you have probably volunteered to be watched for free. Americans like to think we’re getting a good deal, but a good deal for freesign us up, and everyone we know as well.
Social networking. If you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably seen this warning, or some version of it, floating around:
PRIVACY NOTICE: Warningany person and/or institution and/or Agent and/or Agency of any governmental structure including but not limited to the United States Federal Government also using or monitoring/using this website or any of its associated websites, you do NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content contained herein including, but not limited to my photos, and/or the comments made about my photos or any other “picture” art posted on my profile.
You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this profile and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee, agent, student or any personnel under your direction or control.
The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law. UCC 1-103 1-308 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WITHOUT PREJUDICE
For those who think this is a good idea, think again. The warning has no legal consequence. When you sign up for a social-networking account like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, you are giving that network’s owners the right to non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable use of your content, including pictures, text, videos, and everything else you share with others. Posting a warning after you have already accepted the terms won’t protect you. If you don’t want to share your information with everyone, don’t share it with anyone. [Note: additionally, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) applies to the sale of goods, not services. Facebook, like any other social-networking site is a service, not tangible goods or chattel.]
Is the government monitoring social networking sites? Yes. We see the results on the evening news on a regular basis. Authorities monitor the social networks of those suspected of crimes. The IRS finds out about tax cheats by monitoring suspect online transactions. For those who are outraged over this, ask yourself why government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security shouldn’t look at what is on display. It’s not like they’re water-boarding anyone to get information. All of the information on display was happily volunteered in exchange for access to the network’s service. The government, as well as advertising companies and multi-national corporations, is accessing that informationfor a price. The purpose of the information being gathered about you is to track your buying habits so that information can be sold to whoever is willing to pay for it, including various government agencies. Yes, you’re being watched, but the government is the very least of your worries in the American panopticon. You see, “they” are trying to control you. They do want to build the perfect societythe perfect consumer society where information is bought and sold on the open market.
A financially savvy friend once told me that the ideal product would be something that was free, available, and could be resold at a high price. He was correct. But that was 1982, and neither of us had any idea of what we could find for free that someone else would gladly pay an enormous amount of money for. However, that something did exist, and in less than 20 years, the collection and sale of consumer information would become a multi-trillion dollar business, helped along by the advent of the first panopticon consumer technologythe Internet.
Savings cards. Every retail grocery chain in the United States offers their customers some sort of in-store savings card. You complete the registration, providing your name, address, telephone number and other extraneous information such as age, gender, and race. In exchange, the store offers you a discount on your groceries via a card that is read by the computer at checkout. In effect, it’s free money for the consumer, and the store has information to help them serve you better. The store then sells your information to the highest bidder, usually manufacturers and marketing companies.
During the latest pet-food recall, a neighbor wondered how he received a notice of the recall from a local farm supply store when he always pays cash for his purchases. The days when a store could track what you purchased by matching a receipt to your check are long gone. Cash doesn’t buy the same degree of anonymity as it once did. Today, you volunteer to tell the store what you purchase by signing up for their card. And even if you decided right this moment never to use any member discount or savings card ever again, it’s too late. Like the Hotel California, you can check out any time you want, but your information stays on display in the panopticon forever.
Concerned relatives and friends.
Even if you are somewhat successful in hiding your information from public view, your relatives and people who care about you may unwittingly make sure you’re still plugged in. Services like those of The Weather Channel allow people who care about you to get alerts whenever there is dangerous weather in your area. It’s easier than ever before for someone to provide an advertiser your contact information in order to clue you in on a great deal. If someone knows how to contact you through any means, digital or traditional, advertisers and marketers want that information. Who you know tells advertisers more about you than you realize. Using a complex program called an algorithm, market strategists can predict what you will buy simply by analyzing information about the purchasing habits of the people who know you.
Even if no one wants to warn you about severe weather or let you know about a great deal, if an old pal or nemesis wants to look you up, and plugs your name into a search engine, you’re immediately dragged back into the panopticon. The fact that someone searched for you is recorded somewhere in the annals of the panopticonforever. If they have your name or address, anyone wanting to visit you can get detailed directions to your home.
Using the street-view function on Google Maps, people can see what your neighborhood looks like, what sorts of cars are parked near your home, as well as anyone who happens to be walking or riding near your home at the time the photograph was taken. In some instances, even information like license plate numbers can be seen. The State of New York used the street-view function on Google Maps to identify unlicensed backyard pools and fine the owners. Government spying? Hardly. There is a distinction between watching and spying. In the panopticon, there is no spying. Someone is watching someone else at all times. Spying is a far more nefarious activity.
Face recognition. An advertising company called Red Pepper has developed a panopticon technology called Facedeals. Consumers who sign up for the program upload their picture to a central database. Then, when they walk by a participating store, the program alerts the merchant to the savings the consumer gets. The program also updates your social networks, telling all of your connections exactly where you are, and showing them how much money you’re saving. The app then posts a message to everyone in your networks, inviting them to sign up for free so they can save money like you. It’s one of the fastest growing Smartphone apps out there. Consumers are signing up willingly and happily. It’s the solution for utopians across the ages, except….
Are “they” really watching you?
As we’ve seen, in the modern American panopticon, everyone is constantly on display to everyone else, but who’s really watching? In Bentham’s utopian model, there was a concentrated central authority doing the watching. But that’s not how a society built on panopticon technology has evolved. Even Bentham understood that you can watch some people some of the time. You can even watch most people most of the time, but you can’t watch everyone all the time.
There is no central group of watchers. Most people assume, incorrectly, that the “government” is conducting some sort of omniscient surveillance using super-secret panopticon technology. In reality, the vast majority of watchers in the American panopticon are private citizens, not government employees. Some are watching just because they can. Others are doing so in order to make a profit, and still others are watching someone in order to further a private vendetta or political agenda. The likelihood of a nosey neighbor who saw something on your Facebook page contacting a government agency is far greater than the likelihood of some government agency honing in on you. It’s far more efficient, not to mention economical, to let private citizens watch each other, and encourage them to report any suspicious activity. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? In the American panopticon, it’s economics not philosophy that governs the conduct of watchers and the watched. There goes the utopian neighborhood.