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In the annals of philosophical thought, few ideas have been as intriguing and prophetic as Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the “Panopticon.” Born in the 18th century, Bentham’s vision of a panopticon was, at its core, an architectural design for a prison that would facilitate total surveillance of inmates without their awareness. This concept finds new relevance in today’s AI-ized and overly digitalized world, as the omnipresence of artificial intelligence technologies and algorithms eerily resembles the panoptic model of control. When we examine this connection through the lens of Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking work in “Discipline and Punish,” a striking convergence emerges.
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, conceived as a penitentiary design, featured a central watchtower from which a single guard could observe every inmate in individual cells radiating outwards. The genius of the Panopticon lay in its psychological impact: prisoners, unaware of when they were being watched, would internalize self-discipline, leading to a more docile and obedient population. Bentham’s Panopticon was a metaphor for the power structures at play in society.
Michel Foucault, in his seminal work “Discipline and Punish,” expanded upon this notion, illustrating how modern institutions exert control over individuals through surveillance, discipline, and normalization. Foucault argued that disciplinary power operates not only in prisons but extends to all aspects of life, including schools, hospitals, and the workplace. He described how the panoptic gaze becomes internalized, leading individuals to police themselves and conform to societal norms.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where the digital landscape is dominated by AI, machine learning, and deep learning algorithms. These technologies have evolved into a contemporary Panopticon of sorts, reshaping the way we live, work, and interact with information. Our digital footprints are constantly monitored, analyzed, and used to influence our choices and behaviors. The power of surveillance has shifted from physical watchtowers to invisible algorithms that track our online activities, preferences, and even emotions.
In this modern digital Panopticon, we are not merely observed but predicted. AI algorithms use vast amounts of data to anticipate our desires, preferences, and potential deviances. These predictive systems dictate what we see on social media, what products are recommended to us, and even what news we encounter. They craft a reality around us, subtly constraining our will by curating our digital experiences. The consequences of this digital Panopticon are profound. It raises concerns about privacy, autonomy, and the potential for algorithmic bias and discrimination. Just as Foucault argued that disciplinary power could be oppressive, AI systems have the potential to reinforce existing inequalities and amplify the voices of the powerful while silencing marginalized groups.
While the benefits of AI and digitalization are undeniable, we must be vigilant in ensuring that the principles of transparency, accountability, and individual agency are not sacrificed at the altar of efficiency and convenience. In this digital age, we must grapple with the implications of being prisoners in a digital Panopticon. We must demand transparency, accountability, and ethical standards in AI development and deployment. We must strive for a balance between the benefits of technology and the protection of individual rights and freedoms.
The concept of the Panopticon, as envisioned by Jeremy Bentham and expanded upon by Michel Foucault, has found renewed relevance in our AI-ized and overly digitalized world. The advent of AI and digital surveillance technologies has created a new form of control, where algorithms and data analytics shape our reality and constrain our will. As responsible citizens of this digital age, we must remain vigilant and advocate for a future where technology serves humanity rather than making us unwitting prisoners in a digital Panopticon.
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This blog is part of a technology based community blog series called CyberTech Chronicles under the National’ CERT’s ABC Program, aimed at fostering a vibrant community of technology enthusiasts. Through insightful reflections and shared experiences, this blog series provides valuable perspectives on navigating the complexities of IT and cybersecurity landscapes. This blog is authored by Qazi Mohammad Shayan, an International Relations (IR) graduate and experienced media & communications professional currently working at PKCERT.