The Smart Panopticopolis

by Tony Chavira, for Sustainable Cities Collective.

Back in the 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham took the general design of a military school and developed a type of building he called a Panopticon. Physically, the Panopticon is meant to be a wild-looking space plan for a structure where a single observer will be able to watch hundreds of people without them seeing him or knowing exactly who is being watched at what time. Philosophically, the Panopticon is meant to be both a prison and an exercise in perceived omniscience: those who are prisoners will live in fear that they are constantly being watched by an observer who is able to observe them, judge them, and research them. There may not actually be anyone there watching them, but the feeling that they are constantly being watched essentially puts the subjects on their best behavior (or so the philosophy assumes). Most importantly, they will feel no sense of true freedom, as the design of the Panopticon focuses intently on retaining control over the person’s sense of individuality. There is no individuality in the Panopticon.

In a place like London, you’re told almost too casually that you are always being watched. CCTV cameras surrounded from every angle, and many crimes are solved or deterred simply because a camera was in the right place recording the right thing at the right time. Does this justify the existence of an intrusive, overblown citywide surveillance system? Possibly, but only if you are willing to concede your sense of free privacy for safety. As a recent study has shown, more than half of us may be comfortable exchanging privacy for coupons… at the very least, these respondents felt they were getting something in return. If you happen to agree, then living in this type of Panopticopolis would be an incredibly comfortable experience for you. From experience, you would tend to forget that you were constantly on camera and then suddenly remember with shocking clarity when you looked to a passing street corner and noticed one turning its lens toward you.

Orwellian as it might seem, Sun Belt Americans have already become accustomed to two highly intrusive forms of perceived omniscience: traffic intersection cameras and ambient private camera systems. We tend not to realize how many cameras there are around us until we watch the news and two guys in masks knocking over a convenience store, but in most cases crimes that are caught on tape aren’t reported. Why? Because no one actually sees them. They were simply recorded, and no one has the time nor the energy to sit all day and watch the crimes go down. Were the thieves aware that they were on camera? Maybe. If they were, they were stealing for the thrill of it, and therefore defied Bentham’s theory that everyone would simply police themselves when being watched. If they weren’t, it only strengthens Bentham’s theory that criminals will continue their behavior if they are not constantly being observed. Whether it’s seen or not, though, the camera’s effect on their behavior is purely observatory. You adjust because of it, not the other way around.

What is especially interesting about the idea of the Panopticon is that the prisoners cannot see the observer, but are repeatedly told that an observer is constantly watching them. Just as no one has the time to power though thousands of hours of CCTV camera footage, it’s just as possible that no one at all is behind the Panopticon’s curtain at all. The only person busy watching the prisoners would be an all-knowing figment of their imaginations.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume these things as an example:

  1. You drove through a traffic light and no one was around.
  2. You got caught by a traffic camera, but no actual person saw what you did.

I’m sure you’ve heard the riddle, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In line with the concept of the Panopticon, I will pose a similar philosophical riddle: “If a camera watches a tree fall in the forest, does watching the footage later, at another time and location, mean that it actually happened?” Putting the fear of perceived omniscience in you, an automated system doling out tickets without the presence of an actual observer only places the duty of being policed on you. Very literally, if you observed that you were breaking the law, then you were breaking the law. If you didn’t, then you weren’t. There was no observer, no one actually saw you, and there really is no man behind the curtain.

Just as importantly, what should the punishment be for an automated, self-policed crime like this? Until recently, Los Angeles alone issued almost 3,600 red-light violations a month through these ambient camera systems, and the LAPD netted almost $6 million last year through this surveillance program. The point of issuing these tickets is simple, though: to prove to you that you are being watched by a viewer (in this case, the police). Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and many other cities are a Panopticopoli, watching you constantly either to ensure you’re on your best behavior or to catch you as you pass “Go” so they can collect their $200. As these cities debate the legitimacy of high red-light camera violation fines, it would be best to keep in mind that the more comprehensive our Panopticopolis becomes, the more stringent the observer-free city will be about laws that technology has been automatically setup to enforce. Most of the red-light violations, for example, have been for rolling right turns. Does that warrant a $500 ticket, especially when no one actually observed the violation? Less car specific, what can we expect when cameras are programmed to recognize faces and ticket jaywalkers?

What we’re really getting to here is beyond Bentham’s concept of what the Panopticon is. Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, related the concept of the Panopticon to any hierarchal system that asserted dominance through collective observation and social normalization. For example, your teacher screeching your name in front of the class to embarrass you into behaving. Managers have certain roles and workers have certain roles, but if workers take on manager responsibilities without an official promotion, they are typically punished back into their roles as workers. Being watched makes you normal, being observed keeps you in line.

But here’s the million dollar question: as smart growth and integrated, smartly-dense walking cities continue to spring up in the wake of the economic collapse, how comfortable will we all become with the idea of being under observation at all times by those around us? As technological systems become smarter, and cameras are programmed to recognize more and more forms of behavior, how exactly will it affect our behavior in spaces that are meant to be open to the public? Will we sit idly by, or retaliate in some way? Will these spaces really be open to the public, or will they actually be centers for social control and normalization?

How will you live in this Panopticopolis, and will the knowledge that you’re being constantly observed change the way you want to interact with those around you?