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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Bad Ideas: "In Seeking to Perfect Humans, We Must First Control Them"

I am reading a book, A King's Trade" by Dewey Lambdin. It's #13 in the Alan Lewrie series. In my reading,  I come across this:
... by Jeremy Bentham, himself, with his Vice Society and his damnable concept of Utilitarianism. If things didn't meet his strict and narrow key-holes of the most benefit for the most people, then damn it to Hell and do away with it ... whatever it was. Lt. Langlie had gotten a copy of Bentham's Panopticon, his view of an ideal England, and had been aghast, as had Lewrie, that it called for total surveillance of everyone's waking actions by a "morality police" as an infernal machine to "grind rogues honest"!

"Wait, what," I said to myself.

I vaguely remembered reading something about Bentham and "Utilitarianism" back in high school or college - but I certainly did not recall his concept that mirrored that which seems a precursor to Orwell's 1984 or of a Chinese style surveillance state, or even the 'hall monitor" society of the "politically correct police" with which we have become far too familiar. It even casts a sinister light on Star Trek's
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

So I dug a little, and, of course, found a nice little guide in Ethics Explainer: The Panopticon , which confirmed Lambdin/Lewrie's rant:
The panopticon is a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central
observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells.
From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate but the inmates can’t see into the tower. Prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched.

This was introduced by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was a manifestation of his belief that power should be visible and unverifiable. Through this seemingly constant surveillance, Bentham believed all groups of society could be altered. Morals would be reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, and so on – they were all subject to observation.

Think of the last time you were at work and your boss walked in the room. Did you straighten up and work harder in their presence? Now imagine they were always in the room. They wouldn’t be watching you all the time, but you’d know they were there. This is the power of constant surveillance – and the power of the panopticon.
Nor did I know that the modern philosopher Michel Foucault was in on this line of thinking, too:
Michel Foucault, a French intellectual and critic, expanded the idea of the panopticon into a symbol of social control that extends into everyday life for all citizens, not just those in the prison system (Foucault 1970). He argues that social citizens always internalize authority, which is one source of power for prevailing norms and institutions. A driver, for example, might stop at a red light even when there are no other cars or police present. Even though there are not necessarily any repercussions, the police are an internalized authority- people tend to obey laws because those rules become self-imposed.

This is a profound and complicated idea, namely because the process entails a high degree of social intuition; the subject must be able to situate him or her self amidst a network of collective expectations. The crucial point is that the subject's specific role within the network is incorporated as a part of the body and mind, which then manifests as self-discipline.

Yeah, well, this heightens the level of intrusion into our daily lives, as noted in the UK Guardian piece on digital surveillance:
The looming interconnectivity between objects in our homes, cars and cities, generally referred to as the internet of things, will change digital surveillance substantially. With the advent of wider networked systems, heralded by the likes of Google’s Brillo and Apple’s HomeKit, everything from washing machines to sex toys will soon be able to communicate, creating a vast amount of data about our lives. And this deluge of data won’t only be passed back and forth between objects but will most likely wind its way towards corporate and government reservoirs.

With everything from heart-rate monitors in smartwatches to GPS footwear, a bright light is once again being thrown on our bodies. Will we feel exposed under the gaze of a central tower? Perhaps not, but with habits and physical stats charted against the norm, we will feel scrutinised nevertheless. Much of the justification of this is the alleged benefits to health and wellbeing. “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated” – not Apple marketing material but Bentham’s words on the panopticon.

There may not be a central tower, but there will be communicating sensors in our most intimate objects.
Well, it was a simple reading of a book about a fictional rakish Royal Navy Captain, but it did lead me off on a look at the human condition and those who would seek to perfect us all, if only we would give up to them control of our lives.

Like Lewrie and his Lieutenant, I am appalled. "It's for your own good" sucks as an excuse to restrict freedoms, whether by force of law or by the "all-seeing eye." That China adds to this system by "grading" its citizens and rewarding the most compliant really, really sucks.

For them it was a partially realized theory. For us it seem to have become a reality.

If you are interested in reading more about Bentham, you can head here. All emphasis above was added by me.


  1. Anonymous8:18 PM

    Holy Isht, Terrible in it's truth. Do you think this can be reversed without bloodshed?

  2. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Behind Star Trek's ideal utopia run some very dark undertows.

  3. When I was driving, there were some red lights that I ignored. The ones on freeway onramps when there were no other vehicles there. And, no, that's not the reason I am no longer driving.

    Paul L. Quandt

  4. I see that you have your own version of ' Big Brother '.