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Jailbreak in the Panopticon

by Lila Allen

December 9,2010

When Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon prison structure in 1785, he described his creation as “a new mode of obtaining mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The now-prevalent prison structure, wherein the barred walls of cells radiate inward toward a central point, served as a form of psychological behavior control through its premise that a viewer in a central observation tower may monitor any cell, while prisoners cannot tell when they are the subjects of scrutiny.

The metaphor of the Panopticon has since been used in numerous postmodernist writings and theories: Michel Foucault in his descriptions of Western society power structures, Shoshana Zuboff in her writing on computers and work visibility. The presence – or at least threat – of surveillance, according to Foucault, instills in contemporary Western societies a self-governing ideology of good behavior and social control. Authority, be it military personnel, police, or other presumably powerful figure, holds the favorable position of the observer, while the public remains observed, and causally, compliant.

What happens to the Panopticon when the observer becomes the observed?  WikiLeaks, the public wiki database of leaked confidential government documents, has allowed the world community some insight. According to Hillary Clinton, WikiLeaks “tears at the fabric of government” – after all, it is the invisibility of the guard, or in this case, private government action, that keeps him powerful.

The popular interest in transparency extends past one in government activities, and perhaps it is this preexisting trend that has led to WikiLeaks’s success – or at least should have encouraged authorities to be more prepared for its inception. The green movement has called for greater attention to sustainable farming practices and humane livestock conditions, to a tangible connection between producer and consumer. Meanwhile, social media allow their users to connect and access tremendous amounts of information – contact, professional, personal, embarrassing – at a rate never previously paralleled. It was only last January, after all, that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously proclaimed that the age of privacy is over. In more ways than one, he was right.

Julian Assange, the Keyser Söze-esque creator and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, wrote in 2006: “To radically shift regime behaviour, we must think clearly and boldly. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Leveraging a collective knowledge base, and democratizing the share of information, has the potential to shock and ultimately revolutionize public perception of government.

According to Erica Naone of Technology Review, a complete shutdown of WikiLeaks seems unlikely: “WikiLeaks is currently hosted in Iceland, but it could easily move to another country. Mirror sites all over the world could copy the information on the main site and make it available even if the main site were shut down entirely. And WikiLeaks data is also circulating through the file sharing service BitTorrent. Removing all copies of that data would be incredibly difficult, as the record industry is well aware.” This means big upset for the man in the observation tower.

Ethical or not, sites like WikiLeaks are unlikely to disappear now that they have seen the light of the computer screen. The issue that now needs addressing is how the existence of such resources will change the nature of the relationship between the government and its subjects. Does being more visible make us more honest or just more careful? If social media are any indication, I’ll put my money on the latter. Clandestine operations may just find new pathways for inaccessibility, but for how long?

Assange claims that WikiLeaks seeks just government, not simply transparency – but there’s no way of knowing if one will lead to the other. L. Gordon Crovitz of The Wall Street Journal has asserted that Assange created WikiLeaks in effort to “hobble the U.S.,” and he’s not alone. Reports like his predict chaos, a breakdown of the system – and justly so, for WikiLeaks is intentionally that. For better or for worse, the secret may be a thing of the past. Whether it’s surveillance, communication, or power structure, in our new Panopticon, something’s got to give.

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