Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism” was a challenging read however it was a significant theoretical piece that explained the relationship between surveillance and power. However, he expands his argument about how nothing is public or private through examples of the seventeenth century plague and also described the structure of a panopticon. Both examples then relate back to the theme of knowledge is power. He analyzes the structure and the plague to emphasize knowledge is the power that controls the ignorant. Foucault describes the plague that occurred during the seventeenth century.
The epidemic caused quarantine within the town and outlying districts of the town itself. The author then illustrates the people who have power, forming a system in which they can control the plague. The magistrates and syndics implement their power as they watch over the people of the town. As they exercise their system over the unknowing citizens it weakens the power of the people. Foucault also describes the Panopticon, which is a building with a watchtower constructed in the middle.
When in the watchtower, the individual can watch everyone and everything around them but those being watched by the watchtower cannot see anything around them. The ones being watched have the idea of knowing that they are being watched at all times even though there might not be anyone in the watchtower.
The panopticon can also be seen as a omnipotent where one person has control and can watch over hundreds of people. Foucault uses both the plague and the panopticon to convey the fact that power is always around but not always noticed.
People tend to trust things that they believe they have control over. For example, one’s privacy: especially one’s privacy on the Internet. Privacy on the Internet can support Foucault’s theory of panopticism, especially when it comes to knowledge and power. People are misinformed that privacy is in their control when they are on the Internet. They tend to overlook the big picture, which large corporations are able to use the users’ information for the benefit of the company. For example, the infographic “The Sad State of Social Media Privacy” illustrates how unawareness about sites such as Facebook or Google selling personal data to advertisers give the companies more power because of their users unknowingness of privacy settings. Foucault’s belief of knowledge and power is a contemporary concept and can relate to how the ignorance of the people can benefit the ones with power. Foucault uses the example of the panopticon to describe the power of control through knowledge.
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects if it is discontinuous in its action.” (Foucault, 3) The panopticon gives a clear sense of who is under control and the person in charge knows everything that is going on. The USA PATRIOT Act can also support Foucault’s theory of knowledge and power. The USA PATRIOT Act was a piece of legislation that was created in order to fight the “war on terrorism”. In contrast, it threatens the public’s rights through certain policies without the public’s knowledge. According to the ACLU, “The USA PATRIOT ACT: expands the terrorism laws to include “domestic terrorism” which could subject political organizations to surveillance, wiretapping, harassment, and criminal action for political advocacy.” (ACLU, 116)
The act itself has given the government the power to oversee anyone who deems suspicious. Foucault’s explanation of how the panopticon can be utilized in a way to make the public ignorant to the fact that they are being overlooked by a higher presence can closely relate the USA PATRIOT Act where the government uses the excuse of “War on Terrorism” to threaten unknowing citizens’ rights. Michel Foucault complicated theory of panopticism could be correlated with modern day discrepancies. Foucault described knowledge being one of the main sources of power by illustrating the ignorance of the townspeople when it came to the seventeenth century plague and the power the syndics and magistrates upheld when they overlooked and quarantined said townspeople with a system they have created. This can also linked to the concept to the peoples’ignorance towards online privacy and how companies such as Facebook can take advantage of it. He also conceptualized the power of knowledge through the panopticon where knowledge can become a way to regulate others, regardless if a person is present. This can be associated with government regulations like the USA PATRIOT Act and how the public’s rights are being disregarded. Foucault’s theory in simple terms can be thought of as there is no definite line between public and private information until the public is willing to educate themselves and understand that privacy is just a concept that the ones with power have created to keep social order.