United Kingdom: 21st Century Panopticon?

A couple of months ago I saw the film “Red Road” whose story centres around a woman who works as a CCTV camera operator and the man that she surveils: as the film progresses it is clear that the two characters have a prior relationship, and in thriller-style we don’t learn the truth until the end. There are several scenes where the female character stares at a bank of 30 or so CCTV screens, watching the behaviour of people on the streets of Glasgow: the act of impartially watching also a reflection of her dissociated interior world (as we discover in the film).

When it came to reviews of “Red Road” some foreign journalists asked the director whether it was a science-fiction film, as they could not believe that such sophisticated CCTV set-ups existed. In the United Kingdom the degree of surveillance of town centres that is shown in the film is not a fiction, but rather a standard prevention of crime practice in most cities.

It is estimated that in London the number of surveillance cameras in private premises is around 400,000 and the total number of cameras in the UK is around 4.2 million. In comparison with other countries the UK has the highest number of surveillance cameras per capita, with one camera for every 14 people.

Robert Hughes describes in “The Fatal Shore”, his detailed history of the convict beginnings of Australia, various ideas for penal reform that were in vogue in late 18th century, including a building plan for a prison called a Panopticon. The Panopticon was designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with the aim of creating a prison building that would allow the guards to have complete observation of prisoners, while the prisoners were unable to tell if they were being observed or not. This design was for the deliberate purpose of increased control over the prisoners through the apparent omniscience of the guards.

This was to be achieved by a design that used a concentric building with a central tower for the observer, and the periphery made up of non-communicating cells, where the prisoners would be held in isolation and invisible to each other; an asymmetric system of lighting and wooden blinds that ensured that the prisoner was constantly visible while obscuring the observer from the prisoner’s view. Bentham stated that his design would create a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience” with the Panopticon as a “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”.

In these times of increased concern about terrorism and crime it would appear that surveillance is regarded as a sensible strategy for authorities and private citizens in the UK. I do wonder, however, whether this focus on surveillance has created the potential for a “technological Panopticon” in British life – Bentham’s “sentiment of an invisible omniscience” no longer needs a physical structure, but rather can exist through the sheer number of CCTV cameras in cities and towns, as well as other forms of surveillance. I have also wondered what is the effect of a surveillance society upon the behaviour of citizens, aware that their (public) actions may at (nearly) all times be observed by hidden others. Who observes the observers?

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Filed under Politics, United Kingdom

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