Back in the Foucault episode, the PEL gentlemen and guest Katie McIntyre explored the concept of the panopticon. Their discussion stuck pretty closely to Foucault’s text, and current day surveillance only came up briefly, but we heard plenty about it throughout the rest of 2013.Â There’s the ongoing NSA saga, the encroaching â€œinternet of thingsâ€(for your panopticondo?), new smart apparel for formerly private parts, free panopticondoms (a Trojan horse? Ok, I’ll stop). Â It seems like a good time to think back to this part of Foucault’s work, and David Lyon and Zygmunt Bauman have done just that in a recently published correspondence.Â A large part of their conversation is specifically devoted to looking for panopticism in the current surveillance landscape.
The panopticon, like Orwell’s Big Brother, gets rolled out pretty often when talking about surveillance.Â Lyon stresses its importance, but also says that it sometimes “elicits exasperated groans” from those working in surveillance studies today.Â Both he and Bauman think that “much hangs on the fate of the panopticon,” but that straightforward panopticism is now the exception. â€œLiquid Surveillanceâ€ is both the title of the book and their framework for understanding new surveillance. Basically, the approach is a combination of Lyon’s surveillance studies and Bauman’s â€œliquid modernityâ€ thesis. As you might guess, â€œliquidâ€ is used here for its connotations of pervasiveness and mobility, its lack of fixity and ability to shape itself to the forms it encounters. The authors contrast this with the centralized, panoptic model where the watched and the watcher are designated by their positions within a fixed structure.
The new surveillance technologies mean that no one need occupy the tower at all; in fact, whatever threat the tower might represent has become unnecessary in typical situations. Most of us offer up unprecedented amounts of personal information in desire of the carrot rather than fear of the stick. In exchange for sharing our data we receive more efficiency in our own lives, a sense of inclusion, consumer benefits, and other rewards; however, the authors point out that these rewards and increases in efficiency have a tendency to become the status quo.Â Individuals who don’t or can’t provide data won’t necessarily break even, just as people who can’t get cars or checking accounts are now denied many opportunities.Â Society no longer resembles a panoptic prison, but an interconnected marketplace where members present themselves as commodities.Â Where discipline made power more efficient, volunteer surveillance is more efficient still.Â Bauman says,
Everything moves from enforcement to temptation and seduction, from normative regulation to PR, from policing to the arousal of desire; and everything shifts the principal role in achieving the intended and welcome results from bosses to subordinates, from supervisors to the supervised, from surveyors to the surveyed; in short, from the managers to the managed. (57)
Both authors are aware that fear still plays a large role in creating the desire for the means and the act of DIY surveillance. In a section entitled â€œIn/security,â€ Lyon points out the escalation that results between ever more precise and intrusive means of data collection and the new threats they inevitably uncover. Fear rather than discipline is the source of compliance and order in many situations, but not a fear of the watchers, a fear of the nebulous threats they warn of and claim to offer protection from– a â€œfear of the Other,â€ Bauman suggests.Â There are now many ways of watching and being watched, and naturally some writers have tried to stretch the panoptic model to cover them.Â Two in particular are mentioned throughout the book: the â€œban-opticon,” which refers to the use of external surveillance to restrict certain individuals from entering certain spaces, such as borders or airports, and the â€œsynopticon,â€ which refers to the way the many watch the few, as in the case of media like tabloids or the repetitive loops of the planes hitting the twin towers.
Social media provide platforms where the many watch the many, and where power relations are in such flux that any definite diagram may be impossible.Â Consequently, this is one of the places where Lyon and Bauman feel Foucault’s account is in need of updating. Information is collected automatically and indiscriminately, and its flow seems to defy all restriction.Â It may be broken up, redistributed and utilized by any number of parties, often including the original subject.Â The wealth of information enables power to work so precisely that many decisions formerly hammered out in the public sphere are now arrived at through automation. Â Combined with the pressures of coping with a constant, enormous feed of social information, individual agency can often appear obsolete.
The panopticon may not resemble the way most surveillance operates today, but part of what Foucault saw in it was an amplification of power; a transition from the willful acts of the sovereign to a broadly internalized discipline. If he were still around, I think he’d be more concerned with tracing the ways knowledge and power relations work through the new technologies than with trying to push the panoptic metaphor. My only quibbles with this book were in places where more explication would have been helpful or where the authors make claims that only time can judge. Bauman says that power has detached from politics, and that the nation state is “an agency in crisis.”
State institutions are now burdened with the task of inventing and providing local solutions to globally produced problems; due to a shortage of power, this is a load the state cannot carry and a task it cannot perform with its remaining resources and within the shrinking realm of its feasible options.Â The desperate yet widespread response to that antimony is to shed, one by one, the numerous functions the modern state was expected to and did perform , even though with mixed success — while still resting its legitimation on the promise of their continued performance. (Bauman 112)
I think there’s something to that, but the situation is very complex.Â For instance,Â some think that the jury is still out on how well governments can adapt to a “liquid” situation. Despite events such as the Arab Spring, governments committed to retaining power by any means may end up faring better in the information trade than citizens in the long run, sort of in the way that the guy with the bigger bankroll can afford not to get the hang of the game right away.Â Also, even if governments’ abilities to control an increasingly globalized economy and communications apparatus does continue to diminish, a lack of control doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of power.Â The vast sums of money being invested in cyber defense by nations all over the world will surely have consequences.Â On the other hand, there wasn’t enough discussion in the book of how the availability of vast amounts of data has also increased the power of the deviant, in one form or another.
The book also touches on several other subjects, such as the ways in which drones, automation and distancing affect action and ethics, or how big data is making marketing much more precise and seductive.Â The authors make a good case for “liquid surveillance” as a new model, and though the book moves too fast to trace power relations in the way that Foucault did, that’s part of what makes it a good read.Â Many points came up that deserve a deeper analysis, but it’s an excellent primer for thinking about the growing role that surveillance is playing in our lives.
Bauman, Zigmunt and Lyon, David. Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation Cambridge, UK.Â Polity Press. 2012.Â 57, 112.Â Print.