“Big brother is watching you.”
This is the sentences that all citizens of the George Orwell novel “1894” have stuck in their minds. However, the reality outside this dystopian world in permanent war is not that different: God has always been that ‘Big Brother’ that could literally see everything.
Similarly, there are other symbols all around us in our daily life such as The Eye of Providence in the USA dollars bills. This, today considered Illuminati Eye, was first related to gods since the Ancient Egypt times and later on, in 1797, taken by Thomas Smith Webb, author of the “Freemason’s Monitor”, as an illustration of Masonry. Then, the “All-seeing-eye” became a symbol of secret societies, power and conspiracy.
Constant surveillance was believed to be essential to keep people under control. Nevertheless, there was someone who dare to go little bit further. The philosopher and father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, laid down the theory that “power should be visible and unverifiable” with his new prison system, the ‘Panopticon’.
This new idea of prison consisted of a rounded building with a tower in the middle and all a the cells around following the round shape. Since the tower is mirrored, no one would be able to tell whether there might be someone in the tower or not, and therefore, all the prisoners will live with the idea that there can always be watched.
Example of the Panopticon system
Despite how efficient it was, the French historian and physiologist Michel Foucault argued in his 1975 book “Discipline and Punish” that “…the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.”
Nonetheless, this idea of the omnipresent and invisible power was not only applied to prisons but, once again, to control the entire population. As stated in by the essayist Niran Abbas in his book “CCTV: City Watch” only in the city of London there are approximately 4,2 millions of CCTVs and anyone who would wander around can easily be captured 300 times a day.
Taking this into account, it is easy to reckon that this is not only for the safety of the population but to record the behaviour of the society. Or maybe, just for the pleasure of gazing?
Throughout the history, many were the artists who found inspiration from voyeur practises. And, please, don’t think nasty, but there is an inevitable pleasure at staring at others. This can be reflected, for instance, in the work of many photographers such as the serie of pictures taken in the underground by the American Walker Evans or the ones from the window by the New York photographer Arne Svenson.
Photography by Walker Evans
Abbas, N (2003) ‘CCTV: City Watch’ in Kerr, J & Gibson, A. (Eds.) (2004) London From Punk to Blair. London: Reaktion Books.
Focault, M. (1975). ‘Discipline & Punish’. NY: Vintage Books
Glavey, P & Eysler, A (2015) ‘Sureveillance’ [Lecture to GMD Year 1] T303: Contextual and Theoretical Studies. UAL
Orwells, G. (1949). ‘1894’. London: Harvill Secker.
Smith Webb, T (1797) ‘Freemason’s Monitor’. New York: Crushing and Appleton.