Our Societal Prison

Quick background information:

Jeremy Bentham designed a prison in which any prisoner can be viewed by a guard at any given moment. The possibility of a prisoner’s actions being seen would scare them into constant submission. The fear of the possibility of punishment would keep prisoners in line. This prison architecture design is called the panopticon. Later, the French philosopher Michel Foucalt elaborated on this idea and appropriately named it Panopticism.

In other spinoffs of Bentham’s idea, modern day philosophers discuss how Information Technology and other contemporary changes are affected by this invisible hand, or eye, if you will. This idea has been applied in many literary works of mastery. For example, Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 and the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby both act as Panopticons. (However, most critics see Eckleburg’s eyes as a symbol for lost American values and dreams. While I don’t disagree, I believe Fitzgerald was a talented enough writer to create multi-tasking symbols.)

Our Panopticon

It always feels like someone is watching. Even when we’re completely alone, it seems like someone out there has witnessed our mistakes and infidelities — the secret truths we purposely try to hide. When we make decisions, it feels like some invisible hand manipulates our bodies and minds like we’re human puppets. But who is the puppeteer? Or is it less of a “who,” and more of a collective “what?”

If it always feels like someone is watching us, do we act in a certain way only for the fear of being seen?

Would we make the same decisions if we knew that our secrets would be silenced on our own accord? Are our personal morals built on appearances or reality? How ethical are we really? Do we do good things solely for the reasons behind these actions?

In theory, morally “good” decisions depend on one’s own definition of the word. Our definitions might also contain some degree of falsehood if they have been built in this metaphorical Panopticon.

Some say technology is causing this to become more of a problem, but maybe it’s not the technology. Maybe it’s all about humans in general. One obvious observation I’ve made is that people put on masks to hide parts of themselves that are not “good enough” in “society’s” eyes. Why do we need masks?

The watchman (or woman) in our own little Panopticons shouldn’t have a say in who we are.

Now that my rant is coming to a close, I invite all of you who have made it this far in my post to observe yourselves. Be a little more introspective. Each time you feel like you made a decision, no matter how small, based on the possible threat of being seen and/or judged, take note. Perhaps if we realize how often we do this, something will change. Who knows, maybe human authenticity won’t die out like VHS tapes and Myspace. (One can hope, right?)