On April 8, 2015, major news media reported that a South Carolina police officer was arrested and charged with first degree murder on April 7 for shooting an unarmed black man to death. The arrest was made on the strength of a video recording of the incident captured by a bystander’s smart phone on April 4, which showed, over a wired fence, a policeman chasing after a fleeing man and then shooting the man in the back several times, who subsequently fell down on the ground. This incident made me and many others think about the plight of black men in America, which was brought to the forefront of national consciousness last summer through the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Staten Island, New York. Although it is dangerous to overgeneralize the whole group of people or society from a few isolated incidents, the rate of recurrence of similar scenarios was enough to make one wonder about the integrity of the law enforcement. But, one striking difference in this case was that the authority acted very quickly upon seeing the video recording of the officer shooting a fleeing man. This arrest made the community calm and more controlled.
The trajectory of this event made me think about the power of surveillance. It’s no longer just the sitting power that uses the surveillance technology to exercise power; now every individual is capable of using a surveillance technology to exert discipline on others, as long as he or she possesses the technology. Thus, I wonder if we have finally arrived at the age of interactive or saturated Panopticonism.
In the late 18th century, a British Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a penitentiary building that allows a few watchmen to observe a great number of inmates of the building without each inmate knowing if he/she is observed at any moment, thus inducing all the inmates to behave in a controlled manner at all times. Bentham himself thought of the Panopticon structure as a rational and enlightened system to control social problems but others considered it a system of oppression. However, as Michel Foucault discussed in his Discipline and Punish, the panopticonism, the system of disciplinary surveillance, seems the way our society has been organized and controlled – mostly by the power – for the last few decades.
However, this incident in South Carolina makes me think that perhaps the age of interactive panopticonism has arrived in our society. It’s not only the power that control and discipline the powerless, but the powerless may be able to control and discipline the power through panopticon (each powerless individual may become a point of making all corners of society visible). On the other hand, it may be also the case that, in our age of saturated panopticonism (one example is a glut of realty shows on media), many people may begin to feel no constraint about their behaviors that were hitherto considered shameful and indecent.