Surveillance – From Jeremy Bentham to Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze to blogs

By: Heleen
On: October 15, 2006
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Heleen


panopticonOn the left you can see the prison that philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed in the 19th century. In this design the prison cells are being build in a circle around a centre in which the guard resides. The guard can look at all prison cells, because the guardhouse has glass all around. All prison cells are lit for 24 hours and the guardhouse is darkened, so the prisoner knows the guard might watch him at any time, but he doesn’t know when he is being watched. Therefore the strength of this type of prison is that the prisoner does not know when he is being watched, which has a disciplining effect because the prisoner will feel that he has to behave correctly at all time.

In 1977 Michel Foucault analyzed the prison of Jeremy Bentham in his book “Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison”. Foucault used this design from Bentham as a metaphor for the modern disciplining society which that the tendency to observe people. Foucault states in his book that this applies especially in schools, hospitals, factories, the army AND prisons. The surveillance has a disciplining objective and it is being used to educate a citizen to be a good citizen within the society. This type of surveillance is also called panoptic surveillance, named after Bentham’s panopticon (which is the guardhouse in the centre of the prison). One of the characteristics of panoptic surveillance is that a small minority is observing a large majority.

Gilles Deleuze gives his view on Michel Foucault analysis in his article: “postscript on control societies“, which has been written in 2002. This article can be seen as a continuance of Foucault’s analysis. Deleuze does not really disagree with the Foucaultian theory; he just adds his own theory to the discussion. The Deleuzian theory also describes surveillance in which a minority observes a majority, but now the objective is not to educate, but to include and exclude. The Deleuzian surveillance describes a control society in which the minority decides who gets a password to enter a certain building, or a certain map on a server etc. So if you would like to enter the building or the map on the server you have to type in a certain password or use an electronic key. This password or key does not only make sure that only authorized persons can enter, it can also keep record of the people who have entered, how long they were in there, how often they visit etc. But also: it can keep records of whoever tried to enter and was not authorized to do so.

The difference between the Foucaultian theory and the Deleuzian theory is that the Foucaultian theory describes a society in the past and Deleuze describes surveillance in the present. However, the article of Deleuze has been written in 2002 and in this year blogs already existed but where not as popular as they are now. Blogs these days are another type of surveillance, namely synoptic surveillance. An example of synoptic surveillance is a football match, which is exactly the opposite of the panoptic prison of Jeremy Bentham. At a football match football fans reside in a theatre that is build in a circle around the football field. So the fans all are observing the football players in the middle. In this case the majority is observing a minority. And this is exactly one of the major strengths of blogs.

In “An army of Davids” Glenn Reynolds refers to ordinary people as Davids and big media companies, the government and big companies are Goliaths. So one of the major strengths of blogs is that it empowers common people to observe the Goliaths and to discipline them. So many people have blogs and blogs are empowering because they form a network by linking to one and another. If one blog has an interesting story, many other blogs will post this story on their blog accompanied with the link to the blog they have found the story on. And if a story is really interesting the major blogs will pick it up as well and it will reach a lot of people who read these blogs.

For example if a big health insurance company has a disagreement with a client than this client may place his point of view of what happened on his blog. If the majority of people feel that the health insurance company is not treating this client correctly, they can post the story on their blog as well and a lot of readers will read about this dispute. This is of course bad publicity for the health insurance company and it may feel pressured into settling the issue with the client.

Another example might be of an employee who works for a fashion design company. If this employee would find out that the clothes this company makes is being made in a third world country by young children, this employee may start a blog to protest against this kind of ill practice from his employer. If too many blogs report of this situation than the company may be scared of losing too many customers and losing a lot of profits and therefore changing the factory where the clothes are being made.

These are just hypothetical examples, but an factual example in United States are the conspiracy theories of citizens who do not believe that Al Quada was responsible for the 911 terrorist attacks in NYC and the Pentagon. There are a lot of people around the world who believe the US government was responsible for the tragic event on September 11th 2001. And their point of view of what happened can be found all over the internet. Now, I do not believe that these conspiracy theories are true. But if they would have been true, it would probably be powerful enough to impeach the president.

Comments are closed.