Saturday, January 4, 2014
Let Us Reason Together -- the Panopticon (5)
The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham's 18th Century enlightenment notion of how it would be possible for a very limited staff of keepers to control a large population of inmates by making it possible for one keeper to look into any cell simply by turning around. The beauty of it was that the inmates would never know whether and when they were being watched, and that fact would work with innate human nature to enforce proper behavior within the prison. Rebellions and uprisings wouldn't occur. They couldn't. None could be organized without detection. There would be less need for brutality and the usual cruelties prisoners were subjected to. Harmony would reign.
Well, there was more to it than that, of course, but the general idea of the All Seeing Panopticon seemed perfectly rational at the time, and in due time, versions of Bentham's vision were tried with varying results. Part of the rationale for the Panopticon, in addition to the ability to watch prisoners at will, was the isolation of inmates, each to their own cell, rather than being held en masse in cages in the dungeons. A way to control unruly types through isolation was long known and understood, but employing it in general was considered too expensive. But the Panopticon made isolation economically reasonable because it reduced prison staffing requirements substantially.
Ultimately it was understood more or less widely that the simplest way to keep prisoners and reduce rebellions was to hold them in isolation and keep watch on them in ways they could never fully know while severely punishing any infraction of increasingly arbitrary and draconian rules.
Harmony would reign.
Then it was realized that the same principals that underlay the Panopticon for Prisons could be applied to the general population, thus curbing non-conformity and rebellion among the Rabble. The only problem was that there was no technology to do it efficiently and broadly until very recently. But even with more or less inefficient and primitive tactics, the principles of the Panopticon were employed in all sorts of social and political situations The watched actually become the watchmen and women and enforce conformity of mind and body without the necessity for an overly large and intrusive surveillance apparatus. Sure enough, it worked.
Until it didn't.
Harmony reigned temporarily, sometimes for quite a long time, and then it broke down.
Studies have been going on ever since to figure out why that breakdown occurred and to ensure that it never happens again, at least never again in that way. Our Chinese friends may be furthest along in figuring out how to suppress rebellion and enforce conformity on a more permanent basis. But that remains to be seen. As China undergoes as thorough a remaking of its social economy as it has ever endured, rebellion is constant. At the same time, there seems to be a level of relative harmony and peace, in the midst of fierce competition, that is unprecedented. From the perspective of many social engineers, China is obviously doing something very right. But what it is and exactly how they are doing it isn't entirely clear.
The recent hoo-hah around the world about the NSA and to a lesser extent (much lesser extent) about the more or less pervasive corporate and lower-level law enforcement surveillance of entire populations is related directly to the notion of the Panopticon and the principles of its operation. What we have learned is that the keepers now have the technology to keep an eye on every one of us essentially all the time or whenever they want, and we can never know for certain whether we are being watched at any particular moment. Thus our behavior is controlled in theory and largely in fact just by our knowing that we can be watched and any deviation from accepted norms in our behavior noted -- and can be used against us at any time our keepers choose. Even if we don't necessarily deviate from the norm (whatever that is declared to be at any given time), patterns of behavior can be manipulated to create false "deviations" which can then be utilized for prosecution or persecution -- or to sell you something you neither want nor need but which your "pattern" suggests you are susceptible to purchasing with the right persuasion.
It's a wonderful thing from the point of view of those who make and operate these surveillance/marketing/and population control systems. As for the general public, what I've taken to calling the Rabble, it's not so wonderful, but as long as it is not too intrusive, it seems, most people don't much mind that it is going on. Many may actually appreciate it on a visceral level.
Think Facebook, Twitter, and the endless devices of our modern world which make instant communications possible and inevitable and which for the most part provide the user with no privacy at all. Anyone can observe anyone else, and many, many people want to be observed in practically every aspect of their lives pretty much continuously. They can easily get their wish, more easily than ever before in human history. Nearly the entire world can vicariously participate in nearly anyone's life through modern technology.
That includes governments and their private sector sponsors. (Increasingly, "government" and "corporate" are distinctions without a difference as they subsume one another.)
The Panopticon principle as it is today is a versatile and useful tool of population control employed by corporate-governments on a broader scale than ever before in history. Because so many people are eager to share their lives with others through social media and the like, it is remarkably easy to get people in general to adopt technology which utilizes the Panopticon principle for control.
The notion that one can have privacy under the circumstances is absurd. You can't. No matter what you do, you cannot opt out of the technology of observation and surveillance that is built in to the devices, hardware and software of our lives, and even the loudest "privacy advocates" know this full well. There is no "secret place" within our devices where we can whisper secrets to one another without being overheard, any more than inmates in Bentham's Panopticon Prison could ever be sure they were unobserved.
The Revelations we've been exposed to the past few months are the details of a surveillance regime that is pretty much universal at this point and cannot be undone.
Where did the idea that electronic communications were somehow private come from?
It came from marketing. Marketing which obscured the facts.
One was sold the idea of encryption and secure communications, but it was never real in the sense that your online communications were ever truly private and inaccessible to interested parties -- as we're finding out with more and more detail. A few adepts may have been able to temporarily secure and privatize their own communications, but for most internet users, there never was a time when the bulk of communications couldn't be accessed either by the carriers or by governments whenever and however desired. And there's never been a time that I was aware of that carriers weren't eager to sell their bulk information on their customers to government. The architecture of the internet is purpose-designed for this very practice, as most of us once knew but seem to have forgotten.
The ability to surveil the activities of users online -- constantly and automatically -- is one of the key industry ideals and motivations, both to be able to sell something to them and to be able to keep tabs on their potentials for disruption and rebellion (what's generally called "criminality.")
This has always been true of the intranets that gave birth to the internet -- which itself has never ever been either "free" or "private." Marketing myths that have long been sold to the public promise otherwise, of course, but they are simply false and always have been.
The notion of "privacy" itself is actually a recent social development that is in many ways tied to marketing ideas of the early 20th Century ("Blame Bernays.") What I think the idea of universal privacy and the right to privacy came out of was the understanding that the Overclass of the 19th and early 20th centuries used their position to live private lives out of the view of the Rabble and more importantly to develop products and policies in secret from the public, policies and products which were then imposed often by main force, without consultation with or approval by the public. The idea was that if the public didn't know (at all or very much) about how their Betters lived their lives and what was being planned, they wouldn't be able to object or rebel before the policy was instituted, and they could be induced to admire rather than object to the lives of their Betters.
The idea of "privacy" as a general matter turned that understanding of what was being done to the public by the Overclass on its head by proposing a general right for everyone to the same sort of private lives their Betters had long enjoyed.
That's where I think the idea of "privacy" as it is commonly understood in the western world came from. It was heavily marketed as something desirable and necessary to a full and rewarding life -- because Our Betters had it. And you want to be like them, don't you?
Which is not to say that personal space of some sort ("A Room of One's Own" as it were) has not always been with us. It is the fetishization of privacy as the defining characteristic of what it means to be "human" that simply never existed before very recent times, and for most people, it doesn't compute at all.
Most societies exist under forms of formal and informal surveillance. The discovery that Our Own (Exceptional) Society is also under surveillance, and that our corporate-government is a -- or perhaps the -- leading purveyor and employer of surveillance technology is much less of a surprise than our media is making it out to be. We knew, but we made less of it, for the most part, than apparently we are supposed to now that we really know.
Yet there is no plan or movement to reduce or eliminate mass surveillance, quite the opposite. Instead, we are seeing any number of calls to restrict surveillance activities of government while leaving in place or even expanding corporate surveillance -- on the false premise that corporate surveillance is benign. It is not. It is extraordinarily invasive and potentially more dangerous to individual liberty ("") than anything the government might be able to do. Which is of course why corporate surveillance gets a pass.
The current drive for online privacy has many components, of course. One of them is intended to make it difficult or impossible for government to have access to certain aspects of one's life online, akin to the constitutional restrictions placed on government regarding reasonable search and seizure of one's home, papers, and effects requiring a warrant issued by a competent court before any such action can be taken. This is the Fourth Amendment restriction -- which unfortunately has been so riddled with holes and exceptions that it's all but moot in today's world. If some court actually wants to return the 4th to something akin to its original intent, I'm all for it, but I don't see that happening any time soon.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine real online privacy unless the whole architecture of the internet is reconfigured to provide it, and I don't see that happening any time soon, either. Well, at least not on the "free" internet that most of us use.
There could well be another, "secure" internet established for use by "members," say by subscription -- and I'm not so naive to imagine such a thing doesn't already exist in some respects, I'm just noodling for the moment. This is where I see the "privacy" movement (such as it is) headed. We'll have a two-tier "public access" internet, part of which is "free" -- in that use does not require payment (whereas access still will) and which is essentially open to corporate-government surveillance, and there will be another, more costly, internet (parts of which already exist) that is not quite so open -- though still not entirely secure -- for use by those who choose what we might call a higher level of service, and there will be a multiplicity of proprietary, highly secure, internets not available or accessible to the public at all, which will be used by the High and the Mighty. All of these things are essentially already in place, they just need some tweaking to become the standard.
When the Snowden Thing first broke, Naomi Wolf expressed some reservations about it based on her personal knowledge of whistleblowers and how they had approached their duties and actions in the past. The Snowden Thing was a distinct outlier compared to previous episodes of whistleblowing. She noodled for a bit wondering why it might be so, and she suggested that there might be an ulterior reason for exposing the doings of the NSA in the way it was being done: when people know they are being watched -- or rather, can be watched at will -- they tend to modify their behavior, "conform" in a word, almost instinctively. Letting people know that the NSA was "watching" them was, she thought, a useful way to ensure conformity. It's based on human psychology and the principles behind the Panopticon.
Snowden partisans immediately denounced and smeared Wolf for daring to raise questions about the true nature of the Snowden Thing. It was done in a manner that formed the template for denouncing and smearing anyone who expressed reservations about Snowden's motives or authenticity. These denunciations are a form of propaganda -- quite obvious to anyone who has made a study of propaganda and its effects -- a form that was raised to practically an art form by previous totalitarian regimes (Stalin, Hitler, Mao...) and it's effective, at least for a time.
And then it isn't.