Panopticism has just been ramped up a few notches. Panopticism is a Foucaultian concept (employed in Discipline and Punish) that encapsulates the paradigmatic condition of our society, namely that there is a pervasive tendency to subject all social life to modes of surveillance and judgement for purposes of disciplining the populace and ensure its economic productivity. When Michel Foucault wrote the book — a genealogy of punitive practices, contrasting those characteristic of pre-modernity with the more subtle, but also more effective, modern practices, of which the prison is the exemplar — I doubt he thought panopticism could become much more pervasive than it already was. He was wrong.

In TIME of February 11, 2013, the cover article by Lev Grossman (which I briefly alluded to in my previous post) is on the “Rise of the Drones”, and is a chilling reminder of the extent to which our civic freedoms can be, or perhaps more accurately, are being eroded even further than it already has through the employment of advanced robotics technology.

And I don’t mean only the “freedom” to be economically productive and make obscene amounts of money, which some readers seem to think is the epitome of freedom. (A friend of mine has drawn my attention to an article that demonstrates the exact opposite to be the case, namely, that so-called economic freedom has led to gross exploitative practices in that paradise of capitalism, the US. It is available here.)

By civic freedoms I mean freedoms such as the freedom to live where you choose and to marry or co-habit with whom you choose, to express your views rationally on matters of public importance when and where you see fit, freedom of artists to practise their art (painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, etc) without fear of censorship (except where it can reasonably be construed as expressions of “hate speech” or defamation of character) freedom of, or right to privacy when one so chooses, and freedom to engage in non-offensive and non-prejudicial cultural practices (cannibalism being an obvious example of a prohibited cultural practice that infringes on the freedoms of others).

With “the rise of the drones” at least one of these freedoms is in grave danger of being erased, namely the freedom of, and right to privacy, and once this has been destroyed, others may follow, such as freedom of expression — if surveillance by advanced technology in the shape of drones uncovers supposedly “suspicious” activity in the privacy of your home. And who decides what is to count as “suspicious” activity, and on what grounds, is a moot point.

Not too long ago my partner heard her dogs barking hysterically outside our home. Upon investigation it turned out that they were barking at an unfamiliar object hovering above the back lawn at a height of about five metres. It was more or less spherical, and my first thought was that it was a radio-controlled toy resembling a so-called flying saucer. Further investigation revealed that our neighbours were “having fun” with their newly acquired “flying camera-pod”, which really amounts to a “drone” — a remotely controlled flying (aeronautical) machine capable of carrying out surveillance or reconnaissance for a variety of purposes. Whether they were photographing us, or “spying” on us, or just “having voyeuristic fun” in the hope of catching us unawares, we never found out. But whether or not this was just innocuous fun, the point is that they have the technological means to peep into our private lives.

In countries where the US claims “operatives” belonging to organisations such as Al-Qaeda reside, its military has been deploying drones for some time, and has used these machines to assassinate individuals (some of whom were American citizens on foreign soil) claimed to be members of this, or allied “terrorist” organisations. In the process hundreds of civilians have also died — people regarded euphemistically as “collateral damage”. The US claims the right to send heavily armed drones into Pakistan (despite not being at war with it) from bases in Afghanistan in terms of an American “authorisation” justifying such action as counter-terrorism activities post-911. As far as one can make out from Grossman’s TIME article, there is no internationally accepted law to this effect. The article concerned raises the spectre of the state using drones for “spying” (or worse) on civilians possibly being the next step in the US.

The development of drones is intimately tied up with the link between constant technological innovation and capitalism. Whether drones are sold to the military, to civilian businesses or to private individuals (like our neighbours), their sales entail huge profits. Among the customers buying drones from manufacturers, Grossman lists real estate agents (who use them for a camera or video-survey of listed properties), photographers, fire and police departments, and farmers who use them to track unwanted animals on their farms. Drones have been used for entertainment purposes too — from comprising a “boy band” to a troupe of drones performing a dance at the Cannes film festival. In Japan drones are used to track tuna — a disturbing bit of information for people concerned about fish on the endangered species list.

But the needs of the military (and other state agencies who may use them for law enforcement and “state security” purposes) at present far outweigh those of ordinary civilians as driver of technological sophistication for profit. Among the drone models featured in the article — which range from the lethal “Predator” to the even more powerful “Reaper”, and a soon-to-be-launched jet-propelled model, the “Avenger” — there is even a “Nano-model ” that resembles a hummingbird, and can hover near the object of surveillance taking video footage with a miniature camera.

Grossman summarises the future possible deployment of drones as follows (TIME, p25): “This technology will inevitably flow from the military sphere into the civilian, and it’s very hard to say what the consequences will be, except that they’ll be unexpected. Drones will carry pizzas across towns and drugs across borders. They’ll spot criminals on the run and naked celebrities in their homes. They’ll get cheaper to buy and easier to use. What will the country look like when everyone with $50 and an iPhone can run a surveillance drone?”

He concludes the article with a sobering observation: “Drones don’t just give us power, they tempt us to use it.” Is this the future of our world under the latest products of robotics research — a world with no privacy, with nowhere to hide? At present, when you are tired of city crowds, one can still — and we often do — escape into the mountains, but when drones have become more ubiquitous someone sitting in a room a hundred kilometres away may observe (and film) your activities through a drone-installed video camera, whether you like it or not.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment