Saturday, March 5, 2011

Neighborhood Crimewatch: A Panopticon in Miniature...

Before I start, I have to say that the fact that Foucault died in 1984 is fairly humorous, considering his obsession with Big Brother type power structures. I'm sure there are even a group of Marxist conspiracy theorists who would claim that the man was intentionally offed by the 'Man' for that very reason.

Today, I'm going to look at the Panopticon structure in a very focused social environment, the typical suburban neighborhood, through the lens of the Neighborhood Watch. As a Watch Coordinator for 5 years, I have a uniquely intimate perspective with this sort of structure and how it relates to Foucault's theory of Panopticism. Where Foucault sees such structures through the lens of paranoia and repression, however, I see a fundamental good in the use of the Panopticon structure to help keep society intact, and nowhere is this more obvious than in structure of a Watch Group.

In the Panopticon, all the subjects can be seen and know that they can be seen but are never sure whether the are actively being observed at any particular time. The mere threat of being observed, however, instills a seed of doubt in their mind that they carry with them in their daily activity: at any moment, they might be under active observation by an unknown entity and will be caught in their wrong-doing. This may well curtail the anti-social activity all on its own without the need for 24 hour observation, saving the state time and resources.

In Foucault's example, the Panopticon is a large tower in the middle of an expansive building that has, as its outer wall, a series of cells that can be easily looked into but cannot, themselves, see into or communicate with other cells or the tower proper. In modern society, technology frees the Panopticon from the physical restraints with the presence of cameras, heat sensors, internet snoopers and other devices which allow the user to observe without being observed in much the same way. In England, for example, CCTV cameras are ubiquitous around London and, although not every camera can be monitored, they very thought that a camera might be monitoring you at any particular time can subtly modify your behavior (a nuanced form of Enframing the citizenry, but also the government, who are now seen in a different role).

The Neighborhood Watch works on a similar principle, but instead of technology, we rely on the old-fashioned human observer and a few signs that allow the criminal element to know that this is the case. In this way, a criminal who enters a neighborhood with nefarious intentions knows that at any moment a pair of eyes may be looking out a window, recognize him as 'not one of the neighborhood' and mark that information down (through description, license plate numbers, etc.) to be used later if a crime is later committed. There is also the danger of being caught flat out if the observer thinks the subject stands out in a particular way, like painters wearing brand new $100 sneakers to 'paint' a house (a real example).

The Watch is divided up into streets, with a Block Captain selected by each Street to serve as a focal point for the street's needs and then a Watch Coordinator is chosen from amongst them to liaise with the local police and organize activity. In this way, we can see each street serving as a sort of cell in the overall Panopticon structure of the Watch and the Block Captains serving as the random observers with the Coordinator acting as the Tower itself, disseminating information amongst the Block Captains as though they were physically active on all the streets simultaneously (which would be represented by their 'walking' the tower).

As the liaison with the police, the Coordinator as the Tower can quickly identify problems and involve the police, and other external neighborhoods/Panopticons who, when working together and sharing information, form a larger city-wide Panopticon that can more appropriately distribute scarce police resources in a focused manner to capture criminals.

Criminals are not the only ones affected by the 'tyranny of a thousand eyes,' as Foucault might have called such a set-up. By actively being an observer, the observers also know that, at any point, they can become one of the observed. The social pressure that comes from that can encourage the observer to keep up their lawn, make sure their house is in order and to generally toe the behavioral line of their neighborhood. This sort of arrangement would have been anathema to Foucault, but for the rest of non-academic human society, especially in a country as large and diverse as America, this sort of order serves not as a tyranny, but a means of communal support and protection.

From the capitalist point of view, this means more freedom, not less. The freedom to live in a clean and peaceful environment. The freedom to invest in your house without worry that the neighborhood will turn into a ghetto that reduces your overall property value lower than your initial investment. The freedom to let your children play in the yard, knowing that a thousand pair of eyes (in particular, ones you know well through community bonds) will inform you not only of any dangers, but when your kids behave in an anti-social manner as well so that you can deal with it before it gets out of hand.

Despite the inherent strength of a thousand eyes looking out for you, your family, your property and so on, the modern Watch faces a number of weaknesses that actually stem from the sort of 'freedom from structured authority' that Foucault desires. For one, the individual Panopticon has no actual authority and their word carries no official weight in these cases, and many offenses must be actively observed by the police in order to be dealt with. This means that outside of actual break-ins or other felonious acts, many laws are often broken by perpetrators who know they are being observed but also know that the observers lack the power to punish minor criminal infractions.

A good example of this involves littering and noise ordinances. Certain parts of the neighborhood might run parallel to a main thoroughfare and collect a lot of trash from non-residents who think nothing of flinging their garbage out the window onto private property so long as it keeps their personal vehicle clean. Cars with bass amplifiers cranked up to around the decibel level of rolling artillery fire go cruising through neighborhoods at all hours, disturbing people at home, waking sleeping infants during the day and both them and hard-working adults at night, and causing general physical and psychological irritation. In both cases, even a citizen video-taping the offending car in question will not give sufficient grounds for the police to ticket the individual driving unless the police are there when it happens, which is highly unlikely, as the perp is gone long before the police can arrive to witness their activity.

Add to this the damage done to community structures by technology. The neighborhoods of old, where you actively engaged the world outside your door, walking the neighborhood, chatting with your neighbors about the latest news, and so on, are changing. In the era where the computer has become the center of human attention, where everything you need can be delivered to your door, including entertainment and companionship, people are less engaged with their local community and are therefore less influenced by them. Who cares what the outside of your house looks like when you've got a computer game to play or friends to tweet with inside and who cares how the neighbors feel about it when you don't ever have to deal with them directly? As a result of negligence and apathy, houses lose property value, good families move out and the cycle of urban decay is sped up.

Foucault, I believe, would appreciate and approve of this disintegration of the Panoptic Structure illustrated by the weaknesses in the Watch noted above, but its removal makes life difficult and more stressful for the average person, who lives in fear of their environment and shuts themselves off even further, considering everything outside of their door as 'somebody else's problem' (especially in the face of modern media reinforcement of the 'all that matters is me' attitude). In Foucault's world, the criminal and anti-social element roams free and unimpeded, empowered by the knowledge that the resources of the 'King' are too few and too scattered to stop them.

Can the Panopticon become a tool for Tyranny? Most certainly, as the Marxists and Communists have ably shown throughout the 20th century. But in the end it is just a tool, and a useful one for ordering society. One that enframes the observer as much as it does the observed. Eliminating it would have a deleterious effect on society at large, taking us back to a darker age when mob rule and bloody suppression by force of arms were the only order of the day and 'might makes right' was the only true law. And clearly 'Do what thou wilt' does not make for good neighbors or the basis of a free society...

No comments:

Post a Comment