The Pan-opticon effect in AAL

Presenter: Emilio Mordini

Date and time: 1st June 11.00am CEST


English philosopher and political reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) conceived in 1791 a model of prison that, according to him, was much cheaper and more functional than the deportation of convicts in distant colonial islands. In his model prison, there was only one guardian, placed in a tower central, who could check the inmates in all the cells, placed in a circle with the door in the inner part of the circle and a window to give light to the outer wall. The inmates could not see the other prisoners, nor – thanks to an ingenious play of light and backlight – the guardian, who instead had a complete view of their life inside the cells, and also on the activity of the guards under him. Hence the name “Panopticon”, the one who can see everything.
The prisoners never knew whether the guardian was watching them or not. In the primitive project, the guardian could also connect to the cells “in audio”, thanks to metal pipes that allowed them to listen and give orders. This detail was later left out because in the tube audio was not guaranteed the unidirectionality of the communication of the whole device. To be a guardian you don’t need any particular qualities: just look. The family of the guardian, housed in the tower, collaborates in the surveillance and, adds the utilitarian Bentham, without no extra costs. According to Bentham, the architectural structure of the Panopticon could be applied to almost any public buildings, hospitals and nursing home included, where it was needed to supervise hosts.
Finally, the scope of the panopticon was to realize a situation in which people are not continuously controlled but think to be: in such a way they strictly adhere to disciplinary rules because they are sure to be seen although actually they could not, at least to the extent they imagine. The panoptic vision is a differential, asymmetrical vision: there is only one who sees everything and all others see nothing. This is why it lends itself perfectly to exemplifying social control.
A technological application of the Panopticon is the bidirectional television of 1984, the novel by George Orwell. The “telescreen” plays a fundamental role in the novel, so much so that it makes its own appearance on the first page. It is turned on in all houses, it cannot be turned off while it is it is compulsory to attend continuous propaganda broadcasts. It transmits and receives at the same time: everything that happens in the house is transmitted via cable to a centre of police check and you never know if they are at any given moment observing or not.
Bentham’s project was subsequently taken up, and brought back to current events, by M. Foucault’ “Discipline & Punish” (1979). The visibility (which ensures the functioning of power), surveillance (which becomes prevention, because it avoids the repetition of guilt), punishment (which ensures the modification of the behavior that in due time generated guilt) are forms of modern power, in which each supervisor spies on his subordinates and is in turn spied on and observed, in institutions that increasingly tend to be all-encompassing, closed, disciplinary. To Foucault, the Panopticon becomes a metaphor for modernity.
In this seminar, we will pose the question whether AAL systems – which allow to monitor an environment and gather information, being the most straightforward and natural ways of describing events, persons, objects, actions, and interactions – threaten to create a decentralised and dispersed panopticon and, in case, what are the main ethical issues they raise.