‘Panopticon’

Published September 30, 2022
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IT has been some years since WikiLeaks exploded into the public spotlight. Exposés of damning and otherwise secret correspondences between high-ranking officials of the US and other Western governments was a global event that generated hopes that we, the people, could actually hold the rich and powerful to account.

Pakistani generals, politicians, judges and business moguls have since also been exposed as leaks from countries around the world have made news; the Panama Papers and Papa John revelations are unlikely to be the last transnational exposés that implicate our own ruling class in sordid money-making enterprises.

Some might be tempted to suggest that the recent audio leaks which implicate both government officials and opposition alike indicate that there is growing democratisation of information in the public interest. Respective supporters and opponents have certainly celebrated exposés of the ‘other’ as epic victories of ‘truth’. In my opinion, the audio leaks clarify only that the state’s powers of surveillance are becoming increasingly widespread — no cause for celebration.

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham prophesied a totalitarian order embodied by what he called the ‘Panopticon’ — an omnipotent eye to inspect and discipline all subjects within a given political community.

We are at the mercy of those who control the means of info.

Acute political polarisation has distracted us from the profound technological ‘advances’ that are transforming the social and political landscape. From the chip installed in our national identification cards to the closed-circuit cameras that record our every single movement, we are more and more at the whims of the unaccountable men (and some women) who control the means of information.

Editorial: Noon leaks

This is not just about intel agencies using and abusing their power to manipulate our already weak-willed political class — that has in any case been in full swing for decades. The surveilling eye of the state certainly keeps closest watch on political forces that are already controlling the reins of government or seeking to do so in the near future. But the contemporary state has the means to know what all of us are doing and thinking, and therefore either scare us into silence, co-opt us into compliance, or simply dominate our thoughts through ideological apparatuses.

While social media certainly features the most prominent concentration of anti-establishment and progressive thought, repression is commonplace. Forced shutdown of accounts is the minimum — an enforced disappearance is an increasingly common punishment for overstepping the ‘red line’, especially for those hailing from ethnic peripheries.

In any case it is worth being reminded that dissident thinkers and activists comprise a relatively small percentage of social media users. The vast majority in the online space is consciously or otherwise functioning as a cog in a business model that some have called platform capitalism. Our data is fair game for the big tech giants whose platforms we use — they can sell it to advertisers and other companies who want to make us captive consumers or hand over information to the state itself. In the name, of course, of ‘national security’.

None of these developments are figments of the imagination. They are rapidly progressing aspects of collective social life that we ignore at our peril. It is precisely because they sought to resist these trends that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden came to prominence, and, indeed, why entities like WikiLeaks came into existence.

Yet even as leaks and exposés continue, platform capitalism as well as highly contentious developments in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and biological warfare carry on. Investigative journalists in the Western citadels of capitalism have rep­o­rted that the world’s richest and most powerful individuals are already planning to save themselves from catastrophic climactic events by mobilising technology by splashing around unparalleled amounts of money.

Needless to say, these billionaires will not go out of their way to meet the needs of the world’s teeming billions, now or in the future. Neither will the Pakistani bigwigs whose audio leaks we spend hours obsessing about suddenly become visionaries that can combat climate change and the steady militarisation of state and society.

It is all well and good to take on the task of speaking truth to power and exposing the unaccountable, but this needs to happen at scale given the systemic crises we face. Simply calling out individual politicians — or generals and judges, as the case may be — is not sufficient to transcend the deep structural problems that we encounter, and this includes the enormous and largely unconstrained power of Big Tech and the surveillance state.

In fact, there is an urgent need for our young population to be far less naïve in how it casts online footprints. This is the defining battle for political freedom in our putatively shared future.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2022

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