Thursday, September 6, 2012

The electric eye of god

Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison design that renders the behavior of inmates perpetually visible to unseen guards, to explore the power potential of mere surveillance. The logic of the Panopticon is simple: if at any moment someone in power might be watching me—and I have no way of knowing when or if—then at any moment, to be safe, I need to assume that I am being watched and adjust my behavior accordingly. 

The true beauty of mere surveillance as a form of control is that it turns the target’s own psychology into a weapon, over time generating a docile personality while greatly reducing the need to apply overt coercive force.   

It seems to me that this has something non trivial in common with the logic of religions organized around a personal god in terms of their utility for controlling the behavior of the masses. God is unseen, but sees all and punishes those who disobey his proscriptions. Since he might be watching me right now, I need to adjust my behavior accordingly.  It is interesting to speculate about the functional significance of the emergence of monotheism in the late Neolithic in terms of this panoptic form of behavior control over the masses. 

The savvy and skeptical inhabitants of a sophisticated 21st century are far more difficult to control with tales of a vengeful and all-seeing über-being.  His divine presence has had to be upgraded. God has had to become digitized and sequestered somewhere behind a semi-opaque dome projecting from the department store ceiling, a lens embedded in an ATM machine or suspended from a traffic light, a seventh-grade student’s school laptop computer, or a camera mounted in the grill of a cop car or hidden in an innocuous trinket sitting atop the television to spy on the babysitter.

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