In an article at MIT Technology Review, Ethan Zuckerman makes an interesting point on how years of police body cams and bystander cellphone video has not stopped police violence. He recalls how these kinds of surveillance are linked to the ideas of the panopticon. But that one aspect of Jeremy Bentham’s hope for a completely transparent system has not been achieved.

Bentham’s panopticon works because the warden of the prison has the power to punish you if he witnesses your misbehavior. But Bentham’s other hope for the panopticon—that the behavior of the warden would be transparent and evaluated by all who saw him—has never come to pass. Over 10 years, from 2005 to 2014, only 48 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for use of lethal force, though more than 1,000 people a year are killed by police in the United States.

This how Michel Foucault, in his book “Discipline and Punish” describes Bentham’s vision:

This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.

Auguste Comte discusses the prerequisite of theory for observations1:

The most important of these reasons arises from the necessity that always exists for some theory to which to refer our facts, combined with the clear impossibility that, at the outset of human knowledge, men could have formed theories out of the observation of facts. All good intellects have repeated, since Bacon’s time, that there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observed facts. This is incontestable, in our present advanced stage; but, if we look back to the primitive stage of human knowledge, we shall see that it must have been otherwise then. If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed facts, it is equally true that facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theory. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the most part we could not even perceive them.

  1. Comte, Auguste. 1830. Chapter 1 - Account of the Aim of This Work – View of The Nature and Importance of the Positive Philosophy. In Course of Positive Philosophy. http://historyguide.org/intellect/comte_cpp.html, accessed May 6, 2020. ↩︎

Quote from the book “Soul Mountain” by Gao Xingjian. The protagonist is trying to find ancient forests and follows some biologists who are tracking and studying pandas. He asks what scientific value there is in trying to save the giant panda:

“It’s symbolic, it’s a sort of reassurance – people need to deceive themselves. We’re preoccupied with saving a species which no longer has the capacity for survival and yet on the other hand we’re charging ahead and destroying the very environment for the survival of the human species itself. Look at the Min River you came along on your way in here, the forests on both sides have been stripped bare. The Min River has turned into a black muddy river but the Yangtze is much worse yet they are going to block off the river and construct a dam in the Three Gorges! Of course it’s romantic to indulge in wild fantasy but the place lies on a geological fault and has many documented records of landslides throughout its history. Needless to say, blocking off the river and putting up a dam will destroy the entire ecology of the Yangtze River basin but if it leads to earthquakes the population of hundreds of millions living in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze will become fish and turtles! Of course no-one will listen to an old man like me, but when people assault nature like this nature inevitably takes revenge!” (p. 48)