A long time before George Orwell was even born or Tolkien imagined the Eye of Sauron, in 1791 the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proudly laid out his blue print for the ‘panopticon’. The panopticon was a concept prison building in which the occupants were constantly observable. Bentham was careful to define the concept as one in which the inmates were observable rather than necessarily observed. The building was planned as a circular ring around a centrally positioned watchtower. By including partitions (that were like incomplete wheel spokes) from the outer ring, a set of cells along the outer perimeter could be constructed so that the central watch tower could see into each and every cell right through to the perimeter wall at the back. No cell could see its adjacent cell. Bentham envisioned that any watchmen within the central tower would be hidden from view of the prisoners, thus introducing the uncertainty within the prisoners of their being watched. Bentham conceived that living in this permanent state of observed living would pacify the prisoners as well as leveraging resources to maximize efficiency.
We are now well into the informational epoch that ignited with Intel’s first micro-chip. We began with the original IBM main-frame concept and after spending twenty years with decentralized personal computation memory and processing power, we are now returning to the original model of centralized computing. Perhaps our detour away from centralized computing will provide important lessons for the continuation of our march along our inevitable technological path. However now we are migrating data and computing power towards cloud computing. This model which has all the wires leading to a central memory and processing unit offers an awesome potential.
This week, the Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, explained that Google+ was built primarily as an ‘identity service’. A debate has raged: One side claims that a transparent web of true identity is a good development that will bring honesty and decency. The other side claims that our privacy is a right and this outweighs the cost of its abuse. Of course Google are a private company and have the right to do as they wish.
The famous ‘Milgram Experiment’ (Yale 1961) and the (Zimbardo) ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ (1971) do demonstrate the dangers of an imbalance of real, or at least, perceived power. With increased information, leveraged for the good of our diet, it is important that we know if the central Eye of Schmidt’s comment ‘might blink’. After all we need to know what we are leveraging. We as a society have the right and currently the privilege of giving and restricting power, but for this to remain so we need to know the extent of any powers.
Bentham may well have argued that the mere possibility of being observed online would act to moderate our behavior. The application of observance by means of the penopticon prison did of course apply to criminals and not ordinary citizens. We should at least recognise that we may be led by stealth into an infrastructure looking very much like a cyber penopticon.