when society becomes fully transparent to the state

I am posting some longer analytical pieces because I am working on a chapter about “democracy in the age of digital media.” Today’s topic is how digital media makes society more legible to the state, and whether that is good or bad for democracy.

According to many ancient stories, one of a ruler’s first tasks is to count his people and objects. For instance, the biblical Book of Numbers relates the journey of the newly formed people of Israel to take possession of the land that they believe is theirs. In the very first verse, the Lord tells Moses: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls” (Numbers 1:2). Likewise, near the beginning of Luke, we are told, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The emperor needed information, and the people complied: “All went to be taxed, every one into his own city” (Luke 2:1-3). And not long after William the Conqueror seized England, he “sent his men over all England, into every shire, and caused them to ascertain how many hundred hides of land it contained, and what lands the king possessed therein, what cattle there were in the several counties, and how much revenue he ought to receive yearly from each” (A1085).

Since these are stories about monarchs, we might have mixed feelings about their ability to count and read their societies. But in a democracy, the state is supposed to do the people’s will, and it cannot do that unless it can see the society clearly. For example, unless it knows how much money each individual earns, it cannot implement an income tax and use the revenues for popular purposes. In turn, the people must be able to see what the democratic state does in order to hold it accountable. Some degree of transparency and legibility (in both directions) is necessary for a democracy to function.

However, even a democratic state should not be able to see everywhere all the time. Jeremy Bentham was a proponent of democracy (defined as majority-rule) who pushed the ideal of transparency to a horrifying conclusion. His famous model of the ideal prison was the “Panopticon,” which he sketched thus:

The building circular—the cells occupying the circumference.… One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of two stories of cells, and a considerable view of another … By blinds and other contrivances, the keeper concealed from the observation of the prisoners, unless where he thinks fit to show himself: hence, on their part, the sentiment of an invisible omnipresence.—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place” (order changed).

Bentham fought what he called a “War” to have his Panopticons built, and he wanted to extend the same principles to programs that served “persons of the unoffending class.” For paupers, much like criminals, the “principle of universal and constant inspectability” would ensure that they would learn habits of good behavior that would persist even after they were officially released from oversight. As a democrat, Bentham also advocated “inspectability of the inspectors by the eye of the public opinion tribunal.” He saw the consequent changes in the behavior of both the rulers and the ruled as fully consistent with the public good.

For most readers, however, the Panopticon is a nightmare. What is wrong with it? First, it makes power pervasive and reduces human agency to a minimum. Michel Foucault observed:

The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

In a society that is completely legible to the state, we cannot have private spaces in which to develop beliefs and interests so that we can participate in the public realm as distinct individuals. The result is a far poorer public sphere. Hannah Arendt was a great defender of public life, but she wrote that the “four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive” (p. 186). The Panopticon’s cells have three walls, so that the prisoners cannot communicate with each other; the fourth is deliberately missing to allow the keeper to see in.

In the digital age, the problem of legibility has become much more severe. We now use computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices in almost all aspects of our lives, for work, exchange, health, recreation, and intimacy. Each call placed, character typed, and site visited leaves a digital trace. Those traces can be collected and analyzed by firms and governments—or first by firms and then by the governments that seize or penetrate their data. We do not know whether our behavior is being analyzed at any time, but it could be. That is the principle of the Panopticon. I think Foucault was too quick to see power as determinative and was not optimistic enough about people’s capacity to resist surveillance, our creativity and sheer recalcitrance. But the threat is real.

One aspect of the threat is pervasiveness. Hannah Arendt’s four walls cannot shield you against surveillance if inside your house you are typing emails that Google analyzes and the NSA reads. As long as you are using a digital device, there is no secure refuge from surveillance. The chilling effect may take many forms. Just for example, journalists now say that government sources are more reluctant to come forward than they used to be because they believe their communications are being monitored. “Many journalists reported a strong preference for meeting sources in person in large part for reasons of security. ‘I don’t think there’s anything ironclad you can do except [meet] face to face,’ remarked Jonathan Landay. ‘Maybe we need to get back to going to sources’ houses,’ added Peter Finn. Indeed, several journalists expressed a marked reluctance to contact certain sources by email or phone” (p. 35).

A second aspect of the problem is precision. Today, analysts no longer rely on samples of information taken from random surveys, observations, or audits, which they would analyze using statistical techniques that depend on probability. Now they can get all the data. For example, social scientists working in academia, business, or the government can collect and analyze all the votes in cast in an election, all the job openings advertised in newspapers, or all the social media postings that include a given phrase. They can also merge these data, so that we can know, for instance, detailed consumer and employment information about each voter. The result is a wealth of information about small groups and their behavior that yields remarkably accurate predictions. Those predictions would have been unthinkable when we relied on samples and on statistics based on probability.

Pervasiveness and precision relate to a third threat: manipulability. Behavioral economics, prospect theory, and the latest marketing science combine to tell us that: (1) people’s behavior is predictable, but it does not depend on rational calculations of benefits versus costs; (2) we can get people to do what we want by understanding their individual behavior thus far and then subtly shifting messages or the way we frame choices; and (3) this is all good because we can attain desirable social outcomes without paying people or threatening people to do the right thing. Governments needn’t ban or tax harmful products; they can “nudge” citizens into avoiding them. According to Katrin Bennhold,

In 2010, [the British Prime Minister] Mr. Cameron set up the Behavioral Insights Team — or nudge unit, as it’s often called. Three years later, the team has doubled in size and is about to announce a joint venture with an external partner to expand the program. The unit has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process, said David Halpern, its director. Every civil servant in Britain is now being trained in behavioral science.

From Bentham’s perspective, it is excellent news that a democratically elected government can make people act better without threats or bribery, just by observing them more accurately and tweaking choices or messages to nudge them in the right direction. Democracy benefits because the people can decide what counts as “better” and can monitor the state, and the government will be more efficient and effective thanks to its use of data. But from Foucault’s perspective, the new data-driven behavioral economics is the epitome of a Panopticon. Precisely because the power is soft, imperceptible, cheap, and ubiquitous, we don’t resist it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.