Sunday, February 21, 2010

Drones, 1984, and Foucault's Panopticon


For those of us who have been focused on the boots on the ground in Afghanistan, data published by the New York Times yesterday added a whole new dimension.


Yesterday the New York Times published statistics on drone sorties and strikes in Afghanistan in 2009.

The article is an important counterpoint to the headline-grabbing drone strikes by the CIA in Pakistan, and is worth reading online. What you miss by looking at the online version of the story, however, is the graphs of month-by-month activity, which show several striking trends. Strikes by missiles and bombs from drones were up sharply in the first half of the year; the second half of the year, by and large, showed a slight tapering off. (This was consistent with the overall trend in attacks by aircraft and drones.) At the same time, the number of drone sorties -- that is, missions of all types, including "just surveillance" -- showed a very steady upward trend month by month throughout the year. As the article reports:

"Predators and Reapers [are] now supplying more than 400 hours of video a day to troops in Afghanistan . . . Some of the Reapers will soon carry 10 cameras instead of just one, and 30 by 2011, adding to the profusion of video."

Up until now, when I have thought about drones, I have thought about the ethics of drones as a weapon in general, including the specific problem of whether drone strikes constitute extrajudicial executions under the Geneva Conventions.

I have always also had a nagging sense that there is something wrong with the surveillance aspects of drones, as well. But I didn't become so focused on it until confronted with the numbers.


There is perhaps no more powerful portrayal of the problem of extreme surveillance than George Orwell's novel 1984. One of my strongest memories of 1984 was the efforts that Winston had to make simply to find a place in his own apartment where he could escape the observation of Big Brother. Perhaps it was because I, like so many other people, encountered the book as a teenager, when privacy suddenly becomes simultaneously so important as well as so hard to come by, that I remember this so clearly.

While popular culture makes frequent explicit references to "Orwellian" situations that involve doublethink, Newspeak, the Thought Police, and the other ideological nightmares of 1984, I wonder if the real nightmare isn't simply the constant surveillance. I, for one, have always thought that lack of privacy is not an absolute evil, but can only be evaluated in the context of what happens as a result of loss of privacy. I'm beginning to rethink that view.

The French philospher Michel Foucault, in his groundbreaking work Discipline and Punish, reviewed the history of society's efforts to isolate and control elements that caused it problems. Ultimately, Foucault zeroed in on the efforts of Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians to apply analysis and scientific thinking to prisons. The result was the panopticon.


The panopticon was a prison design that reversed the old paradigm, in which prisoners were stored away, "out of sight, out of mind," and instead arrayed them in a way in which they could be observed as efficiently as possible by the fewest number of managers.


Foucault understood this to be symptomatic of the much larger project of societal rule. To Foucault, prior to the physical and bodily aspects of control and manipulation, there are aspects that have to do with seeing, knowing, naming, and categorizing.

At the end of the day, is surveillance bad if no harm comes of it? Or is it even possible to separate the two? Consider this quote from the New York Times article. Speaking of Stephen P. Mueller, top air commander in Afghanistan, the article stated:

He said the strikes typically came when troops were caught in firefights or the drones came across people who appeared to be planting homemade bombs, the biggest source of allied casualties. The counterinsurgency strategy "isn't about going out and finding those," he said. "But when we do find them, we obviously do what's necessary."

Obviously.


Related posts

In the old order of things, power places itself on display, and hopes that the population sees fit to obey. In the new order of things, power compels every member of the population to display himself or herself . . .  In the new order of things, the courts are bypassed and the instruments of discipline -- observe, classify, examine -- run rampant.

(See "Surveiller et Punir" Indeed!)



A large number of people are marked for exclusion and deprivation -- and worse -- because they have characteristics that are susceptible to the whole apparatus of power:  they are easily recognizable as  NOT "normal" or "right" or "acceptable" . . . under the gaze of surveillance this condition is recorded and propagated . . . for perpetual recording and processing within the data centers of power . . . accompanied by intermittent acts of physical and cultural injury -- random, senseless -- to reinforce their unshakeable status. 

(See Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color)

One issue that has a key place in the midterm elections, I believe, is surveillance.  With each passing day, I am hearing more and more people say that the surveillance issue is something that a wide spectrum of people are deeply upset about. That includes people on the right as well as people on the left -- people who don't usually talk with each other, much less work together for positive change!

(See The Surveillance Issue: The Fulcrum of the 2014 Election?)



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