Friday, July 16, 2021

Panopticon

Friday, July 16, 2021

It’s startling at first, but when you hear it every time you go out you get used to it soon enough. That’s how I felt when I first heard announcements routinely broadcasted from loudspeakers installed in our barangay. The announcements are usually about keeping people safe and maintaining order in the neighborhood. One would hear things like:“Yun pong pickup na may plate number alpha-lima-sierra 3-7-6 sa may Nueve de Pebrero, pakiabante po. Paalala lamang, nasa Mabuhay Lane po tayo, bawal tumambay.” and two minutes later: “Yung babaeng nakapula sa tapat ng Jesus First building, pakisuot po ang face mask at face shield.” 

I was taking a walk when I first heard such announcements. I looked around and wondered: how do they know what exactly is going on in the streets, at each corner of the neighborhood? Do they have CCTVs affixed to every electric post in the city? How can that omniscient being see everything at the same time? What if that voice calls me out for something, anything? What is going on? This is taking surveillance to a whole new alarming level. 

The entire thing reminded me of a particular lecture in graduate school many years ago. The subject was Soc Sci 180: Epistemological Issues in the Social Sciences and the professor was discussing Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and modern forms of punishment. That was when I first heard of the panopticon, an architectural design for prisons invented by Samuel Bentham. 

The panopticon, which means “all seeing” in Greek, consists of a central tower surrounded by cells. The observer in the central tower can see each prisoner, but the prisoners in the cells can’t see the observer and they do not know when they are being observed. Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor of social control. He argues that because of the constant gaze of the observer, the prisoners learn to abide by the rules and police themselves. The prisoners simply internalize the norms and behave as if they are always being observed. Modern morality is the effect of the internalization of the “gaze.” The “gaze,” or the feeling of always being observed, puts pressure on individuals to self-regulate, to conform to norms and standards of behavior. 

Have we, members of the community, internalized that omnipresent gaze? Have we changed our ways because we feel that we are being watched and recorded by those ubiquitous CCTVs? Do we now conform to regulations for fear of being publicly called out by that godlike voice?

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