In the space of a few years, concepts like meta-data and surveillance drones have become commonplace in news reports and public debate. While many of us are justifiably worried about information technology and privacy violations, we ourselves contribute to these observational practices on a daily basis. Facilitated by technological advances, it has become possible to monitor nearly every kind of human experience. Self-surveillance might well be the last piece in the puzzle.
We have started to track our sleep cycles, exercise routine, step-count and daily calorie-intake. Our wireless smart-scales upload our weight and body-fat percentage to our chosen health-tracker. We download apps to our phones that help us drink less and quit smoking, and we send our DNA to companies to obtain a genetic profile: concerning our ancestral roots and – up until recently – health issues we are predisposed to, so that we may change our life-style accordingly.
A frequently voiced concern relates to privacy violations of health data: what happens if insurance companies obtain and store this information? It is not unimaginable that this data could be linked to information obtained through the scanning of your supermarket rewards card. Based on this data connection, you could be forced to make the choice between healthier lifestyle choices or paying a higher insurance premium. These concerns are justified and typify increased levels of surveillance in contemporary society.
A thinker that is commonly associated with surveillance is Jeremy Bentham, designer of the panopticon – a circular structure with an observation tower in its centre, surrounded by open space and an outer wall containing prison cells. Its purpose was to facilitate effective surveillance: inhabitants would be visible to the invisible observer in the central tower, yet inhabitants would not see one another.
Michel Foucault used Bentham’s architectural design to describe disciplinary mechanisms, arguing that the panopticon provides the blue-print for a self-disciplined society:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection”
Indeed, for disciplinary power to work, it is not even necessary for anyone to be observing from the central tower. The threat and uncertainty of being observed are sufficient to make inhabitants exercise disciplinary power over themselves. Individuals become their own observers: they subject themselves to disciplinary regimes in which they are the object of scrutiny. This principle embodies the self-disciplined society.
It would be inaccurate to state that technological advances foreshadow the dawn of self-disciplined society, as we already inhabit a self-disciplining society. Instead, we are given extended and increasingly effective means to observe ourselves, which means that self-disciplined society has entered the information age. As disciplined citizens, we do not need to be told what is required of us: we readily subject ourselves to health regimes.
Even before big brother can harvest our health data, we already frequently choose products that contain less fat or sugar, buy whole foods, and consume certain products such as (red) meat less frequently. We also try to go to bed earlier, exercise more, drink less and quit smoking, apparently unprompted and self-initiated. Laudable actions, but nevertheless worthy of critical reflection prior to buying an Apple iWatch.