Bentham, surveillance, treats, kindness

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The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was a man of vision. In the late 1700s, his ideas were seen as completely radical, as he opposed slavery, called for the separation of Church and state, advocated for women’s rights, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, legalisation of divorce, animal rights, and the abolition of the death penalty and criminalisation of abuse of children.

Among his most memorable contributions, however, was the panopticon – a type of prison where order and control is exerted through observation and surveillance. The prison was a curved space, with open fronted  cells. In the centre sat an observation booth where the wardens would watch the prisoners from behind a screen, so that they were unseen.

Bentham felt that the inmates would act as though they were being watched – and therefore not commit any illegal acts – even if the guards were not actively watching them. Bentham believed that we behave in a more civil fashion when we believe we are being watched, despite a thousand years of human history in which we believed various all-powerful deities were watching us and we still went ahead and did whatever we wanted.

But in the modern world, the all-seeing eye of the gods has been replaced by the all-seeing iPhone, or whatever cheaper, better equivalent you can afford. The fact is now that if something remarkable happens in a public place, it will end up on a phone and very shortly thereafter, on the internet. All this makes it even more amazing that someone had the bright idea of stealing a JCB and using it to break into a shop on a day when half the country was out on the street chucking snowballs at each other and filming themselves falling over.

There are obviously many positives to social media, especially when you have been snowed into your house. The big snow of 1982 may be the stuff of legend, but it is a distant memory for most of us. The images that flooded the internet in the last week of six-foot deep snow drifts and 12 foot tall snowpersons helped us all feel a little more connected to each other while we sat around a superser in our icy prisons. It was a bizarre few days. Brief forays into the outdoors reminded us that snow is actually quite cold, a fact we had forgotten as really our only other experience of it is in the video for Last Christmas by Wham, in which they all had lovely bouffant hair to keep them warm, like a squirrel uses its bushy tail to wrap around itself.

It was amazing to see real, proper snow, but it was also unnerving. Going for a walk and taking photos of it felt like the people who walked out towards the disappearing ocean during the tsunami in 2004, not realising that what they were seeing was not normal and that they should really be running in the opposite direction as fast as they could. The snowstorms of the last week, coming so soon after the wreckage of Ophelia, felt more than a little ominous. As our planet slowly smothers, it would appear that we are going to prepare for more frequent weather events like this one, by stocking up on big dirty bags of coal, six packs of gas canisters for the superser, and a big diesel-guzzling four wheel drive to transport all our toxic fuels back to our poorly insulated houses.

Despite never being prepared for any event in my life – from the Leaving Cert, to marriage, to last year’s tax deadlines – somehow we managed to be ready for the snow. Having a large family means you are always ready for the feeding of the five thousand, with stacks of unlabelled containers containing non-descript meals languishing in the freezer. Dinner became ‘chicken with red sauce’ or ‘chicken with brown sauce and possibly onions’ as we worked our way through meals of indeterminate age, but it was in the provision of treats that we fell down.

In our post-apocalyptic household, treats are the main currency – used to barter, bribe, or lure children in from a force ten blizzard. Towards the end of the four day test of endurance, I was tearing the house apart looking for even a discarded Freddo, left over from the good times before civilisation fell. In the end I found a few chunks of birthday cake at the bottom of the freezer; whose birthday, I don’t know, and what vintage was unknown, but it was chocolate cake and that was all that mattered. I briefly wondered to myself if this was what it was like for Crean and Shackleton, as I made myself another Nespresso to wash down the cake.

Thanks to the internet and our propensity to record every moment of our lives, we have all become little surveillance cameras; a truck jackknifed in Cork last month and four people were fined for trying to capture images and video of the crash on their phones, even though there were gardaí and emergency services at the scene. Our desire to create content as offerings to the great gods of the internet has led us to lose a sense of agency – many of us have become watchers, as opposed to doers. But however bleak the scenes of a Lidl being torn apart like something from Mad Max were, the snow also brought home how innately good we are, and how fast we act to help others when called upon, whether or not we think we are being watched or filmed.

As for Bentham, he would probably be glad to know that he was mostly right about people, even if his prison design wasn’t his greatest idea. As for the man himself, after his death his skeleton was dressed in his clothes and mounted in a glass case with a wax version of his own head, and place in the halls of University College London. His cadaver even contains a webcam, and you can log on and see the world as he does, for better or for worse.

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