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Panopticon kids

By Allison Orr - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2008


In 1791, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a type of prison building that, through a combination of architecture and optics, would allow an inspector to observe the activities of all prisoners, each of whom would know that they were under surveillance, but would not know exactly when. He called this building a Panopticon. It was an important feature of the Panopticon that a prisoner could never be sure when they were being watched. Bentham believed the mental state induced by being watched but not knowing when or by whom, would reduce the need for chains and other forms of discipline.

In 1977, Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, claimed that the technology of global communications networks constitutes a kind of camouflaged Panopticon.

In today’s world, with the ubiquitous presence of cameras and the existence of the Internet for the distribution of these images to so many millions of unknown watchers, Foucault’s claim appears to be more and more sound. As this technology becomes ever more sophisticated, portable and cheap, the only hindrance for the development of a surveillance culture is our own aversion to being spied on.

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But a recent experience has led me to believe that we are eager to embrace surveillance if it provides us with some sort of convenience. Far from rebelling against the increasing intrusion into our privacy, we are keen to embrace it, even if it does indeed constitute a Panopticon-type environment.

I was recently talking to a fellow mother of a young child, inquiring how her son is doing at his new daycare. After a few pronouncements on the excellence of the institution she told me the most extraordinary thing: she said the main reason she chose this place was because it provides a webcam of the school, allowing her to log on to a website during the day to see her child at play. This daycare has cameras pointing at the children all day, every day - everywhere, but not in the toilets. The film is then streamed live to a website.

The desire to keep a constant protective eye on young children is a strong urge for parents, and the often unavoidable need to utilise daycare can be a wrenching experience, particularly at first.

But is watching your kids, the other kids and their carers all day long really the answer? The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became about the thought of children as the objects of surveillance. It is hard to imagine a more accurate, modern incarnation of a Panopticon than this environment, where the carers and the children are being filmed all day long, not knowing who is watching them and when.

Most adults, probably including many of the parents of these children, would balk at the idea of being filmed all day at work, and having that footage streamed live over the Internet.

While they are not aware of it, children have rights and it is incumbent on adults, and particularly parents, to ensure that those rights are upheld. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which all countries are signatories except the USA and Somalia, does provide a child with the right to privacy:

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Article 16
No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

While sharper minds than mine can argue the meaning of “arbitrary”, the ability for anyone to watch a child, all day, every day, could be considered an interference of their privacy. The website would be password protected, of course. But no system is secure.

How many of the parents who considered this webcam a good idea ever wonder who else might be watching their children? How many parents might themselves share the logon information with grandparents, aunties, friends and so on? Keeping tabs on who may be logging on at any time to watch would be impossible, meaning these children could be exposed to more than just their privacy being violated. Watching a particular child at play, learning their habits, the toys they find delight in - this is the kind of information pedophiles use to lure children.

This is part of the reality of the technology-driven world we live in. What we may embrace as a convenient, time-saving device can have a darker side. We must be aware of, and continue to question, the significant issues presented by the Internet’s potential as a tool for surveillance. As always, things are more complex than they first appear when we institute a “technological fix” for what is essentially a social question - what is the best way to protect our children.

As far as I can find out, webcams are not in widespread use in daycare centres, however, unless people stand up against the practice, it will be the thin end of the wedge. If parents come to rely on technologies like this for peace of mind, what’s to stop it moving into schools in the future?

Jeremy Bentham’s original Panopticon was a building designed to induce a state of mind that would allow for ease of social control of prisoners. He could not have envisaged that such an environment could be so easily created through the use of cameras and the Internet, nor would he have ever considered it an appropriate environment for early childhood development.

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About the Author

Allison Orr is Operations Manager and researcher at Per Capita, an independent, progressive think tank. Allison has a PhD in political science.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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