Friday, July 22, 2005

Panopticon Follies

Of the many ideas championed by WorldChanging, pretty much the only one that sticks in my craw is the participatory panopticon. This week's example is particularly disturbing: it's a Malaysian site that allows citizens to post picturephone photos of traffic violators:

The Malaysian Star notes that the site is operated by the national Traffic Ministry.

This is a nice example of two aspects of the participatory panopticon: (a) it's global; and (b) it makes it far simpler to record (and, possibly, prosecute) petty crimes and deceptions.
Nice? I'm not convinced. The advent of a surveillance state is not more appealing simply because ordinary citizens are its agents. Quite the opposite.

The intriguing side of the particpatory panopticon is its ability to reveal and reduce instances of police brutality and similar abuses of power. The program cited by WorldChanging, however, is more along the lines of a neighborhood watch program, and as such is merely an intensification of an existing form of top-down social control.

Personally, I'm always happy to see bad drivers identified and punished, and chances are, the Malaysian program will accomplish nothing more sinister than that. That said, I don't see how Malaysia's network of citizen-informants is really "world changing," in practical or philosophical terms. While it may not be absolutely necessary to denounce it, I see no compelling reason to applaud it.

As for the question of reducing police brutality - at demonstrations, for instance - I've noted elsewhere that there's some debate over whether panoptic surveillance actually reduces crime on the part of citizens or terrorists. Accordingly, I think it'd be logical to question whether it can realistically reduce governmental crime. One also has to consider the technological and financial advantages that government agencies enjoy. Jamming camcorders is one possible law-enforcement response to the participitory panopticon; jamming digital cameras is another.

Ultimately, the only thing I'm quite certain the participatory panopticon will bring us is increased sexual harassment of women, in public and private.


Speechless said...

I'm afraid it's too hot to think too deeply at present. Nevertheless, like you Phila, I am often horrified by how we are herded together like so many rhinoceri expected to conform and participate in the demands of our times. But I suppose, free as we fancy ourselves to be, we are all subject to the weight and pull of the present, recognized later and labelled as history.

Alas, so many ways the heart tugs for individuality, to live up to the potential of our uniqueness, but "the times" keep us grounded, and too, so does the power of the herd...

I would like to live with my family off in a clearing in the woods along the side of stream, sunlight on the trees. I'd hang out my laundry to dry, let the kids run round buck naked, and we'd eat when we were hungry, sleep when we were tired. But the complexity of modern life demands we do jobs that might matter, drive cars, run red lights and uphold the rules of society.
It's not too fulfilling, modern life. So instead we invent myths of our own importance and the importance of gratifying our desires, as a way to compensate for the dreams we can't satisfy.
Wonder if the Panopticon will capture any of that on it's cameras?

monkeygrinder said...

Phila - I think you are making good sense here.

In Seattle, where I am based, and where seperately, World Changing marketing efforts are based, Activists (anti war, anti globalist, etc) DO RECORD the police and their quasi-legal disruptions of "anarachist" public gatherings.

But it doesn't matter. Who reads Indy Media? -- hemp roasting fucks, conforming non-conformists, conspiracy theorists.

Meanwhile, with a straight face, here is something I saw on the local news after one of these events: A Police Sargeant holding up a rubber bullet, which he stated the demostrators had thrown! at police. Supposed etiology, a cache of these mysterious oviods was sourced by the the police originating from the scruffy backpacks of protesters.

Maybe. Maybe. Or maybe right after you get shot with a rubber bullet, you're going to throw it away too. It might if bounce off the thick skull of a plainsclothes policeman who started a fight for the uniformed polic to break up.

Back to World Changing: I think, taking in to account your position that all this positive technology that world changing describes can also be negative, I agree, but I think there are patterns of technology that are more beneficial than others, and have a tendancy to push culture in a positive direction. RIght now, they are not doing that kind of analysis over at World Changing. The Koolaid might be laced with arsenic, they'll never tell us, or even critically examine it for themselves.

So thanks Phila!

Phila said...

"Hemp-roasting fucks"...that sounds about right. I used to be somewhat involved with Indymedia, and I have a soft spot for 'em, but there's a lot of truth to what you say.

It pains me to criticize WorldChanging; it's one of my favorite sites. But the panopticon stuff - and their misguided post that dared to agree with David Brooks' critique of left-wing philosophy...I can't keep my trap shut about stuff like that.

Speechless said...

(As usual, my comments sort of veer off from the post in a direction of my own peculiar choosing. Apologies!)
Spending a fair bit of time, as I have, in Ireland over the last 20 years I've watched it go from a fairly free wheeling place to a far more rigid law and order state. It used to be that the local farmer could drive his car down the main street of a nearby village, the frame held together with baling twine and copper wire. These days nobody even has an old's all bigger and better. Every pays for their licnse, their insurance their tags. The inspection's never out on the car. The law and order way has finally caught up with Ireland, and the craic's gone from the place. Everyone takes themselves and their neighbors very seriously...they've become caught in the mania of conformity. One of the last havens for non-conformity has slipped into the straight line society. It's a loss. But if you want to find places where people round the corners, and don't stay straight within the lines, look no further than your local poorer city neighborhoods. It's so refreshing to be connected to people who don't take every word the gov't officials utter as gospel, who can see the lies that are told to benefit the priveleged, and who are willing to call blind conformity what it is: cowardice.

Phila said...

Don't apologize, Speechless! Tangents and free association are what this place is all about. I'm interested in anything you have to say.

monkeygrinder said...

Actually, I meant to satirize the conventional view of Indy Media, not Indy Media itself, which I value with some caveats.

I myself am on occaison a hemp roasting, conspiracy theorizing, conforming non conformist fuck.

Haven't roasted hemp in some years. Been too long.

Phila said...


Ooops. Well, I still think there's some truth to what you say. But Lord knows I've got a conspiracy theorist streak myself. Hemp-roasting? Ugh, no. I actually did that for the first time in about 25 years a few days ago - long story - and sweet Jesus it was awful. Definitely not the appropriate drug for an unstable, bone-deep melancholic like myself!

Anyway, I really like Indymedia, on the whole. I just kind of drifted away from it.

monkeygrinder said...

There are certainly those people who smoke the stuff more than 3 times a week. The word "dull" comes to mind.

on the other hand, several of my friends in the software industry have sharp, jagged personality edges and huffing pot from time to time goes a long way towards smoothing that out.

then there is my friend who breaks out in spots. We laughed and laughed at him in highschool.

Phila said...

It's perfectly fine for anyone who enjoys just doesn't work out for me. Drugs that give you MORE anxiety, I don't need!

Viva CNS depressants!