The Inspection House
eBook - ePub

The Inspection House

An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance

Tim Maly, Emily Horne

  1. 160 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Inspection House

An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance

Tim Maly, Emily Horne

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About This Book

In 1787, British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham conceived of the panopticon, a ring of cells observed by a central watchtower, as a labor-saving device for those in authority. While Bentham's design was ostensibly for a prison, he believed that any number of places that require supervision—factories, poorhouses, hospitals, and schools—would benefit from such a design. The French philosopher Michel Foucault took Bentham at his word. In his groundbreaking 1975 study, Discipline and Punish, the panopticon became a metaphor to describe the creeping effects of personalized surveillance as a means for ever-finer mechanisms of control.

Forty years later, the available tools of scrutiny, supervision, and discipline are far more capable and insidious than Foucault dreamed, and yet less effective than Bentham hoped. Shopping malls, container ports, terrorist holding cells, and social networks all bristle with cameras, sensors, and trackers. But, crucially, they are also rife with resistance and prime opportunities for revolution. The Inspection House is a tour through several of these sites—from Guantánamo Bay to the Occupy Oakland camp and the authors' own mobile devices—providing a stark, vivid portrait of our contemporary surveillance state and its opponents.

Tim Maly is a regular contributor to Wired, the Atlantic, and Urban Omnivore and is a 2014 fellow at Harvard University's Metalab.

Emily Horne is the designer and photographer of the webcomic A Softer World.

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Millbank Prison
The 1850 Hand-Book of London, a traveller’s guidebook, describes Millbank Prison like this: ‘A mass of brickwork equal to a fortress, on the left bank of the Thames, close to Vauxhall Bridge… It was designed by Jeremy Bentham, to whom the fee-simple of the ground was conveyed, and is said to have cost the enormous sum of half a million sterling.’
Millbank was still under construction when it opened in 1816. It was built on the marshy banks of the south side of the Thames, close enough to London for convenience but isolated enough to avoid complaints from neighbours. The layout was complex: a central tower was surrounded by a hexagon of walls, each segment of which was the base of a further pentagon of walls, with open exercise yards inside them. Each yard was watched over by its own four-storey tower. Seen from above in maps of the day, the prison resembles a barbed flower with six pentagonal petals, surrounded by a wall and moat that enclose the full sixteen-acre site.
It was a troubled project. The soggy terrain caused severe delays and cost two lead architects their jobs between 1812 and 1815. Budget overruns nearly doubled the original estimate of £259,700. Work was finally finished in 1821, but the prison didn’t last long. Harsh conditions and surrounding marshland caused disease to sweep through the population, and an epidemic led to a complete evacuation in 1823. Even when people weren’t getting sick, the design itself was fatally flawed. The labyrinthine network of corridors was so confusing that the prison’s own warders sometimes got lost, and the echoing ventilation system transmitted sound so well that prisoners used it for illicit communication. By 1842, a newer prison, Pentonville, had been built to serve as the national penitentiary, and Millbank became a holding cell for convicts being shipped to Australia. It closed in 1890.
The 1850 Hand-Book of London is wrong. Bentham did not design Millbank. As built, Millbank was designed by William Williams, drawing master at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It was the winning entry in a contest held to replace Bentham’s design, the final insult after two decades of failed effort on Bentham’s part to get his own revolutionary ideas set in stone.
It is true that Bentham tried to build a prison on the site. In 1794 he was paid £2,000 by British prime minister William Pitt for preliminary work on the project. Selection of the intended site ran into technical and legal problems that seemed to be resolved when Bentham, using government money, bought the land at Millbank in 1799. But the project faltered again, Pitt resigned from office in 1801 and in 1803 the new administration decided not to proceed. Hope was briefly restored in 1811, when the government returned to the idea, but Bentham became convinced there was no real commitment to the proposal. While Millbank was being built, Bentham was suing the government for wasting his best years. He settled for £23,000.
In Bentham’s proposal, there was no labyrinth of corridors to get lost in, and no echoing ventilation system to allow for covert communication. His design – which he called the Panopticon – was an altogether purer affair. The complete idea was described over the course of twenty-one letters written from White Russia in 1787 to his father, an attorney back in England. They were collected and published as a single volume in 1791.
Bentham imagined a circular building, with the inspector’s tower (or ‘lodge,’ as he preferred to call it) in the centre and the cells arranged radially around it. The central tower houses the prison warden and his family. Each four-sided cell is completely cut off from its neighbours. The interior side facing the lodge is open (aside from floor-to-ceiling bars) and the exterior side has a view to the outside world through a window on the outer wall. These windows are large enough that they light not only the cells, but the inspector’s lodge as well. The play of darkness and light is important here: the windows of the lodge are protected by a fine metal grate that will allow the inspector to see into the lit cell, but prevents the prisoner from seeing into the relatively low-lit inspector’s area. Blinds and partitions further obscure the presence of the watcher. At night, artificial lights outside each window replicate the light of day so as to preserve this proto–one-way-mirror arrangement.
Twenty-One Letters
LETTER I. Idea of the Inspection Principle
LETTER II. Plan for a Penitentiary Inspection-house
LETTER III. Extent for a Single Building
LETTER IV. The Principle Extended to Uncovered Areas
LETTER V. Essential Points of the Plan
LETTER VI. Advantages of the Plan
LETTER VII. Penitentiary-houses – Safe Custody
LETTER VIII. Uses – Penitentiary-houses – Reformation
LETTER IX. Penitentiary-houses – Economy – Contract – Plan
LETTER X. Choice of Trades Should Be Free
LETTER XI. Multiplication of Trades Is Not Necessary
LETTER XII. Contractor’s Checks
LETTER XIII. Means of Extracting Labour
LETTER XIV. Provision for Liberated Persons
LETTER XV. Prospect of Saving from This Plan
LETTER XVI. Houses of Correction
LETTER XVII. Prisons for Safe Custody Merely
LETTER XVIII. Manufactories
LETTER XIX. Mad-houses
LETTER XX. Hospitals
Panopticon; or The Inspection-House is a weird mixture of grand schemes and fine details. One moment, Bentham is talking about the distribution of profits from prison labour, and the next he’s spending a half-dozen paragraphs working out how to run a system of gears through bent speaking tubes in order to drive a flag that will signal to prisoners that they’re being talked to. Sometimes he’s a salesman, sometimes a philosopher and sometimes a crank. He opens the letters with a bunch of hand-waving about the kind of stone and arches that would ensure the building will stay standing, and ends with a fanciful flight into imagining how the isolation systems of the Panopticon will allow you to raise and educate perfect virgin daughters to be ready for marriage. Not only the workings of light, but those of sound, heat and ventilation, are described in exacting detail.
Born in 1748, Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, social reformer and sometime lawyer, best known for his promulgation of the philosophy of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism preaches a moral framework based on encouraging actions that produce pleasure and discouraging those that produce pain. Acts that produce net pleasure must be good, and acts that produce net pain must be bad and ought to be avoided. Classical utilitarians like Bentham and John Stuart Mill (born 1806) were obsessed with the quantification of both joy and suffering, with the aim of producing institutions and social structures that minimized the latter.
Bentham – particularly in his later life – was a radical, advocating for women’s equality, animal rights, separation of church and state, and the decriminalization of homosexuality. He was a fan of transparency and wanted people to be responsible for their own actions. He puts it like this in 1834’s Deontology: ‘It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed – that every man’s house were made of glass.’ With transparency came accountability. ‘The more men live in public,’ he writes, ‘the more amenable they are to the moral sanction.’ The Panopticon was designed to make one particular class of people – convicted criminals – live very publicly.
Bentham’s Panopticon is not just an exercise in radical transparency, it’s also a labour-saving device. He’s quite explicit on this point:
I flatter myself there can now be little doubt of the plan’s possessing the fundamental advantages I have been attributing to it: I mean, the apparent omnipresence of the inspector (if divines will allow me the expression,) combined with the extreme facility of his real presence.
A collateral advantage it possesse...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Notice
  5. Contents
  6. To Whom It Ought to Concern
  7. 1 Millbank Prison
  8. 2 The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution
  9. 3 Camp Delta
  10. 4 Port Newark Container Terminal
  11. 5 London’s Ring of Steel
  12. 6 Oakland
  13. 7 Our iPhones
  14. Sources
  15. Acknowledgements
  16. About the Authors
  17. About the Exploded Views Series