The Panopticon & The Police (Or Foucault & Ferguson)

The shooting of Michael Brown earlier this month by police officer Darren WIlson, the subsequent protests, and the police response to those protests certainly give us a lot to think about. There’s a story to be told about police militarization that has been taken up by a lot of media outlets (not to mention the junior senator from Kentucky). There’s a story about the effects of persistent neighborhood racial segregation in St. Louis (but by no means only in St. Louis). There’s the long and tragic story of racial imbalances in the use of force by police officers across the country. But there’s also a story that cuts against the grain, in some ways, of the major narratives surrounding this incident. That’s the story of Ferguson as an episode in the struggle over surveillance and the growing ubiquity of methods of recording and observing individuals. Flipping a more familiar surveillance story line on its head, however, in Ferguson it’s the police who are resisting increased monitoring, and more extensive surveillance is being pushed by people opposed to police abuses of power..

First, I think a little background is in order about the theoretical frame I would use in analyzing this topic. Michel Foucault is widely regarded as one of the deepest and most interesting thinkers on the topic of surveillance as a growing social practice. In Discipline & Punish, Foucault discovers an elegant architectural metaphor for the way that constant monitoring operates on members of a population. That metaphor comes from the design of the Panopticon, a 19th-Century blueprint for the ideal prison by English Utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon consists of a cell block in a circular form, with each cell housing a single inmate. Each of the cells has a large window on the outside of the ring to allow light to come in from behind and a large window on the inside of the ring so that the inmate is fully visible from the guard tower in the very center of the circular structure. The guard tower has a round room with windows on all sides, so that a single guard can observe all the inmates in their separate cells at once. Those windows, however, are blinded, to make it difficult for the inmates to tell at any given time whether the guard is actually watching them. The inmates should have the feeling that they could be being monitored at any time, without ever knowing for sure whether they are.

Panopticon” by Jeremy Bentham – The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Panopticon has rarely been put into practice as an actual design for a prison or other carceral institution. However, Foucault’s intention was not to talk about actual buildings, but to use this design as a metaphor to understand strategies of surveillance that increasingly come into effect in different social institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. We can view the Panopticon as a metaphor for any set of social practices or techniques that have two features: (1) individualization, or the separating of each person out as a single individual to be tracked and compared (as each individual prisoner is isolated in a single cell), and (2) invisible visibility, or the organization of supervision which makes it possible for each person to be monitored at any time without being able to see whether they’re being monitored at any given time.

Many social practices or institutions fit one or both of these characteristics, and the number of ways in which these two processes take place seems to be growing. The increasing ubiquity of cell phone cameras and closed circuit TV means that, at least in public places, one always has grounds to suspect that one is being recorded. But no one knows what videos will go viral online or which surveillance cameras are really being monitored, meaning we never know who, if anyone, might be watching the things that we do in front of those cameras. Increasingly sophisticated data mining techniques used by advertisers, the NSA, and others mean that more and more people and algorithms are paying attention to what we do individually and keeping statistics to compare us to other individuals, even if their records don’t identify us by name.

You can probably think of many other examples of the growing panoptic organization of society drawing on current events, and it’s the everyday familiarity of these practices that makes Foucault’s identification of the general trend toward panopticism particularly powerful. Many readers and students recognize their own sense of a growth in general surveillance in society and feel that the French thinker has identified and named what they were already noticing themselves. And that feeling of recognition when we read Foucault’s description of panopticism is often accompanied with a sense of dread or anxiety, a feeling that these techniques of mass surveillance are something to be critiqued and resisted in the name of individual liberty or the right to privacy.

If we return to the events in Ferguson, however, we might find that our moral intuitions point us in a different direction. Whereas we often think of law enforcement as engaging in surveillance of the population, in Ferguson a dominant storyline has been one of police trying to avoid being monitored by the press and the public. The Ferguson police department refused for almost a week to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, and there have been instances of police officers removing their name tags or not responding to requests for their badge numbers. Both of these are attempts to prevent the linking of objectionable police behavior to individual officers. There have also been many cases of police threatening and arresting reporters, as well as orders by police officers to reporters and citizens not to film or photograph their activities (we should note that anyone has the legal right to record police officers conducting their official duties, as long as doing so doesn’t interfere with police operations). In Ferguson, it’s those opposed to abuses of police power who are calling for more surveillance, more accountability. Outrage about the treatment of journalists by the police has been widespread, as was criticism of the police department’s prolonged refusal to identify Darren Wilson by name. A petition to require Ferguson police officers to wear body-mounted cameras has already received more than 45,000 signatures.

The reasoning behind proposals like this one makes perfect sense. If cops know that their actions are being recorded at all times, they’ll be more likely to think twice about using lethal force in cases where doing to isn’t obviously justified. And if an officer like Darren Wilson behaved in keeping with reasonable guidelines about the use of deadly force, the video will vindicate his actions and clear him of wrongdoing. The arguments are eminently reasonable, but it’s still true that all of these are calls for the increased use of techniques of surveillance. Supporters invoke terms like “transparency,“ “accountability,” and “freedom of the press,” rather than “surveillance” or “discipline,” but these proposals nonetheless amount to a push for more use of panoptic technologies as a result of this incident.

In many cases mass surveillance seems like an overreach by the powerful, a violation of the rights of the powerless. In the case of the Ferguson Police, on the other hand, it seems like the powerful are the ones who are resisting increased surveillance and the relatively powerless who are trying to push it on them. What should we make of this apparent contradiction? Do we identify the Ferguson Police Department as allies in a long-term struggle against the surveillance society? Do we admit that our initial intuitions about surveillance were wrong and, in light of this incident, get fully on board with an agenda of panopticism? (a little “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA,” perhaps?)

I think the right answer is neither of these options, but it’s worthwhile to consider the tension that seems to force us to accept one or the other. If increasing surveillance is always bad and forcing police officers to wear body-mounted cameras increases surveillance, then forcing police officers to wear body-mounted cameras is bad. Conversely, If police wearing body mounted cameras is a good thing and its also something that increases surveillance, then something that increases surveillance is a good thing.

The flaw in both of these lines of reasoning is the assumption that the trend of increasing surveillance must be something that’s either an unqualified good or an unqualified evil. Clearly, it seems more likely that it’s the kind of thing that’s sometimes good and sometimes bad. But if we’re not against technologies of surveillance in the case of the Ferguson PD, then we can’t appeal to “surveillance is bad” to justify opposition to being monitored in other cases either; we’ll have to have a more detailed discussion about the ends to be achieved by surveillance and the limits within which it can be justified in these particular cases.

Foucault refers to the Panopticon as a “political technology,” and if one reads his body of work a little more extensively it becomes clear that this does not mean a technology used by the powerful against the powerless. The Panopticon (and here I mean any of the technologies for which this building can serve as a metaphor) is rather a tool that allows a certain kind of influence to be exercised in different situations, with some predictable results. It is not a tool that is the particular property of some group within society to be used against some other group, but one that can be used by different political actors in different situations.

Whether employing techniques of surveillance is just in a particular case will probably largely depend on who is monitoring whom, in what way, and for what purposes they’re doing so. However, that doesn’t mean the issue of surveillance and its effects can simply be ignored when talking about justice and public policy. We can’t simply ignore the very real story of increasing techniques of surveillance throughout society and across the political spectrum in favor of a simplistic lens that says that what the relatively powerful want is bad and what the relatively powerless want is good. There is a real historical trend to be seen in identifying the growth of techniques of surveillance, and the fact that it is a general trend matters for how we evaluate what’s good or bad about instances of surveillance. Like so many important concepts, however, it doesn’t tell us by itself what kinds of policies to support. For that, there’s still no substitute for learning some history and figuring out who the winners and losers of a specific policy would be. By all means, raise your voice in support of more observation and accountability for our law enforcement professionals. But be aware when you’re doing so that your advocacy is part of a social trend with much more ethically murky implications.


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