Monday, 9 July 2007

The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham

If you ever find yourself in London, travel by underground to Euston square station, turn left out of the exit and walk down Gower street for around 150 yards. On your left you will see the impressive portico building and dome of University College London. Walk in through the wrought iron gates and head past the porter's lodge straight across the quad towards the dome. You can enter by a side door on the left and find yourself in an imposing pair of corridors known as the cloisters. Turn right and go along to the end of the cloister and there you will find a large, finely crafted wooden box. Most days this is open to reveal, sitting for perpetuity, the Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham.

Although you might not realize it at first sight, the auto-icon is one of UCL's more grisly mementos, for underneath the neatly pressed clothes of the image before you is the preserved skeleton of Jeremy Bentham sitting inside the glass cabinet, stuffed and mummified for all the world to see.

When he died in 1832, the father of Utilitarianism and inventor of the Panopticon left instructions that his corpse remain permanently on display as an "Auto-Icon" or self-representation. And there he sits staring out at everyone who passes by. The head is merely a wax effigy implanted with his own hair. His real head used to be kept in a box over an adjoining door but it proved too much of a temptation to rival Kings College students who would regularly filch the head during rag week and would only offer it back on payment of a suitable ransom.

If you want to know why any one would want to have themselves stuffed and mounted for public display in this way you can read Bentham's spirited defence of auto-iconism in his aptly named pamphlet, "Auto-Icon: Or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living", of which only 20 copies were printed, presumably as not too many people fancied this particular form of immortality.

When I was a mere student, I used to walk by Bentham's box every day, and gave a passing nod to the old gentlemen who saw me through three years of a physics degree. Bentham besides coming up with a new moral imperative ("Act so a to increase the greatest happiness of the greatest number "- a truth for which he might well have been awarded the Nobel Prize if there had been such a thing in his day) he also invented, as I have said, the panopticon - a penal device to allow all prisoners to be observed 24/7 without them knowing it.

The panopticon is something which is only just beginning to reach its zenith in our modern surveillance society. It has been suggested that soon, probably within the next decade, we'll be living in a world where everything we see, everything we hear and everything we say will be recorded wherever we go.

Few things will go unnoticed. Our day-to-day lives will be archived and saved. And all this will be available over the net for analysis.

The first step towards the panopticon society came with the mobile phone. This now ubiquitous little device that sits inside all our pockets and handbags and which we take with us wherever we go, contains an increasing number of remarkable electronic gadgets and wizardry. Not content with simply making a simple phone call or two, most phones now have built in cameras and often video cameras at that. Youtube provides the outlet for our personal recodings, but what you may not realize is that the mobile phoine in your pocket is tracking every move that you make and the phone companies are recoding this minute by minute data and keeping it for years.

This was revealed clearly by a recent news report of a judge being convicted of stealing a Rolex watch. Apparently the judge took the watch in for cleaning, the serial number was checked and watch had been reported as stolen two years before. The Judge claimed that he had bought the watch from a second hand store but was found to be rather economical with the truth. And this is where our friend the panopticon societycomes into the story. The judge was revealed to be telling a plate of porkie pies by his mobile phone. It appears that the lady who lost the Rolex was in her local Tescos at the time. The judge was discovered to have been in the same Tescos, in the same aisle just fifteen minutes earlier. And how did they prove this? Mobile phone records. Everywhere the lady went her mobile phone went and her movement were tracked and recorded, down to the last 10 feet. Unfortunately for the judge he too had his mobile on him and he was tracked to exactly the same spot.

And all of this happened two years earlier.

Think of the number of records being stored of the movement of every mobile phone user, every minute of the day across every square foot of the country for year after year. The scale of it is mind boggling. The intrusion into private life more so.

Of course it doesn't stop there. There is now available a new peice of software called Flexispy, which when loaded onto some unsuspecting person's phone, allows you not only to track them via a special website, but also allows you to turn on the mobile's microphone so that you can listen in to everything they say. There's no need to plant bugs on people if they are already carrying one around in their pocket.

And its not only mobile phones. Google is keeping a record of all searches that pass though its engine. And they are linking them to individual users so that they know every thing you, and everyone else looked at. It's all on record for the last 24 months. Then there are emails. Almost everyone knows by now that all emails are being intercepted by the USA and read by software robots who search key words in the hope of trapping terrorists and anyone else the state may consider undesirable.

Of course many will see more benefit than harm in all this. After all it helped to catch the judge with the Rolex watch. The same kind of people are those who also say things like "if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear." These by the way are some of the most frequently used words in any police state and ones which would have echoed in the ears of Jews in Nazi Germany and communists in Macarthy's America and whether they had anything to fear I leave up to you to decide.

Prisoners of the state we might not be, but prisoners of the Bentham's panopticon we most certainly are.

1 comment:

beachhutman said...

How does gravity effect you how you think and your ideas about the world

Would you be sitting where you want to be if it werent for gravity

Tim Baber and I discuss this subject all the time when he is board at the librarian job in the afternoons

Do you have any real ideas about gravity and how it works