The All-Seeing Eye
The eye you see isn’t an eye because you see it; it’s an
eye because it sees you.
When I was a child, I was taught—as a fundamentalist Christian—that while the devil could not read my mind, he watched everything I did, scanning for the slightest shift of my
body or expression that would reveal my thoughts. He did this, I was told, because he wanted to know me. And he wanted to know me not because he loved me—as God did, who watched me also and who knew in addition what went on in my head and in
my heart—but because he wanted to tempt and even control me.
My response as a child was to attempt to control myself, to let neither my face nor body, nor especially my actions, reveal my thoughts. I’d fool him! But I knew even at age five that this was a waste of time. I knew—though of course I could not have used this language—that if the devil, or for that matter anyone, could
assemble a large enough body of data about my external habits, he could in time effectively read my mind. I knew also that the capacity to read my mind, whether by God, man, or devil, would
lead necessarily to the capacity to control me: surveillance controls, and absolute surveillance controls absolutely.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that by attempting to control myself I was effectively surrendering my freedom. I was allowing my fear—of the devil, and in retrospect even more so of
God—to determine my actions, my expressions, my thoughts, and most damning of all, what I did not think.
I no longer believe in a devil, nor in a God, at least not the sort about which I was taught as a child. I do, however, carry with me the lessons I learned about the relationship between information held by a distant authority and control by that authority. This relationship has always been understood by those in power. It is a
relationship we all need to remember.
By now, most of us can see the central movement of our culture: for the last several thousand years it has relentlessly expanded its
region of control from its original base in ancient Mesopotamia—the “cradle of civilization”—through the Middle East and
Levant, around the Mediterranean, into Europe, then Africa, the Americas, Asia, Oceania. In exerting this control, the culture has
deforested more than 90 percent of the world, depleted more than 90 percent of the world’s fisheries, similarly destroyed the great
flocks of birds, the great herds of ungulates. It has destroyed, subsumed, or forcibly assimilated nearly all the cultures in its path, until most of these other ways of perceiving and being in the
world have been forgotten. This much is clear. These are simply facts. They are beyond dispute.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that this movement toward the attempt at absolute control extends only into the external world. It extends as surely into our inner worlds, into
what we think and who we are, with the attempted control as complete, the devastation as severe, as that in the outer world.
Pretend you’re sitting in a room, surrounded by cops. Or perhaps you’re surrounded by representatives of a major corporation. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference.
They ask you questions, show you pictures, read you slogans. You do not want to respond. You do not trust them, these cops, these representatives of a corporation. You do not want to give
But you do. Not by speaking. Not by a barely perceptible tightening of your clasped hands, nor by a shifting of your shoulders. You do not betray yourself by a flash of recognition, nor even by
the slightest movement of your eyes nor a moistening of your skin with sweat. Instead you are betrayed by the activities inside your
brain itself. They have a machine that can read these activities. And there’s nothing you can do about it. They know this. They get the information they want.
Or you walk into a store. The representative of a major corporation—or maybe it’s a cop, sometimes you can’t tell the difference—
glances at a console, then greets you by name. You do not know this representative, this cop. You have never seen him before in your life. But he knows you. He knows where you bought your shirt, and how much it cost. He knows the same about your pants, socks, shoes, backpack, car. He may know your credit history, your medical conditions, your arrest (or non-arrest) record.
It’s not you. He’s not reading your brain, as did the cops—or maybe they were representatives of a major corporation. He’s reading your clothes. He’s reading every mass-produced item in
your possession. He’s reading your cash. The items contain computer chips, you see. Or rather, they hold chips you don’t see. The chips are smaller than a grain of sand. And cheap, five cents a
piece, soon down to a penny. These chips continuously broadcast information about you to whoever has the proper receiver. Agents of major corporations—or of the state, whichever they
happen to be—know how much you paid for your sweater, know where you are, and know where you’ve been.
You begin to notice cameras everywhere you go. At first they were only in obvious places, like casinos and 7-11s. But then you start seeing them elsewhere, in intersections, ATMs, hotel hallways,
schools. You notice them at airports, and even at the Super Bowl. No matter where you are, someone is able to watch you, record your movements. Sometimes these watchers—cops, or maybe salesmen from major corporations—use computers to scan your face and compare these scans to other faces in their databases, maybe deadbeats, maybe criminals, maybe terrorists,maybe people whose politics they don’t like, maybe people who do or don’t buy their products.
Or maybe you’re crazy. Paranoid. You’ve been hearing voices lately. You can’t always tell which thoughts are yours, and which belong to someone else. You’re not even sure any longer who you
are. Who are you? Do you think your thoughts, or are they someone else’s?
You’ve read that scientists at Yale have been doing studies in which they use magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) that provide pictures of what physically goes on inside the brain, to detect people’s responses to pictures. (They found, no big surprise here, that many white people who claim not to be racist, and who in fact may not be particularly racist on a conscious level, feel fear when shown pictures of unfamiliar black men.) And you know MRIs are already used by market research companies to “gauge consumers’ unconscious preferences by looking at the pattern
of brain activity as they respond to products or messages.” And if you know that market researchers are using MRIs, then you probably can’t even imagine the uses the cops, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have dreamed up. One clue: researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that some parts of your brain “light up” (to use their words) when you are presented with a face you’ve seen before. Another clue: scientists at Stanford are beginning to map the electrical and magnetic brain waves associated
with thinking specific words and sentences. You think this, your brain does that. Already, the scientists say, “Recognition rates, based on a least-squares criterion, varied, but the best were above 90 percent.”
You have the right to remain silent. It just won’t do you any good.
You know, too, about the computer chips. They’re everywhere. Not yet. But soon. Katherine Albrecht wrote recently in the Denver University Law Review, “A new consumer goods tracking system called Auto-ID [now called RFID, for Radio
Frequency Identification tags] is poised to enter all of our lives, with profound implications for consumer privacy. Auto-ID couples radio frequency (RF) identification technology with highly
miniaturized computers that enable products to be identified and tracked at any point along the supply chain. The system could be applied to almost any physical item, from ballpoint pens to toothpaste, which would carry their own unique information in the form of an embedded chip. The chip sends out an identification signal allowing it to communicate with reader devices and other
products embedded with similar chips. Analysts envision a time when the system will be used to identify and track every item produced on the planet. Auto-ID employs a numbering scheme
called ePC (for ‘electronic product code’) which can provide a unique ID for any physical object in the world. . . . For example, each pack of cigarettes, individual can of soda, light bulb or
package of razor blades produced would be uniquely identifiable through its own ePC number. Once assigned, this number is transmitted by a radio frequency ID tag (RFID) in or on the product. These tiny tags, predicted by some to cost less than 1 cent each by 2004, are ‘somewhere between the size of a grain of sand and a speck of dust.’ They are to be built directly into food, clothes, drugs, or auto-parts during the manufacturing process. Receiver or reader devices are used to pick up the signal transmitted by the RFID tag. Proponents envision a pervasive global
network of millions of receivers along the entire supply chain—in airports, seaports, highways, distribution centers, warehouses, retail stores, and in the home. This would allow for seamless, continuous identification and tracking of physical items as they move from one place to another, enabling companies to determine the whereabouts of all their products at all times. Steven Van Fleet,
an executive at International Paper, looks forward to the prospect. ‘We’ll put a radio frequency ID tag on everything that moves in the North American supply chain,’ he enthused recently. The ultimate goal is for Auto-ID to create a ‘physically linked world’ in which every item on the planet is numbered, identified, catalogued, and tracked. And the technology exists to make this a reality. Described as ‘a political rather than a technological problem,’ creating a global system ‘would . . . involve negotiation between, and consensus among, different countries.’ Supporters are aiming for worldwide acceptance of the technologies needed to build the infrastructure within the next few years.”
The Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has funding and/or participation from global corporations and universities in the United States, United
Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and Switzerland. Sponsors include Pepsi, Gillette, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, and (who would have guessed?) the U.S. Department of Defense. In
2001 this gang wired the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma with RFID to see if they could track objects tagged with Auto-ID. Gillette, Wal-Mart, and Tesco are installing shelves that can read RFID
radio waves embedded in shavers and related products. The European Central Bank is planning to imbed Euro banknotes with RFID tags by 2005. Hitachi Europe has already developed a smart tag chip small enough, at .3 mm square and thin as a
human hair, to fit inside a banknote. Mass production of these chips will start within a year.
And the cameras. You’ve seen them with your own eyes. You know. You know.
But maybe you don’t. There are still the voices, telling you that you’re crazy, saying you’re paranoid, saying it’s no big deal, saying
those in power have more important things to do than to watch you (more important things like tracking the movements of every roll of toilet paper, every dollar bill, every person: NO! Don’t
think like that! That’s not right!). The voices tell you that those in power have your best interests at heart. The chips are to reduce
theft, the cameras to increase security, and the MRIs, well, if you have nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?
Another article, written not so long ago, began with the unforgettable first line: “Those voices in your head may be real.” It went on to say that scientists have been able to develop the capacity to project a beam of sound so focused that only one person can hear it. It can be transmitted from hundreds of yards away. The military is of course extremely interested in this technology. Microwaves can also be used to transmit sound. Pulses can be beamed into your head, such that you might think that you’re hearing them, or even thinking them. These pulses could be shaped into words, into thoughts.
But that’s all crazy, the voices tell you. None of that could happen. None of that could happen to you.
Just today I learned that schoolchildren in Akron, Ohio are being fingerprinted so they can be identified when they go through school lunch lines. This seems pretty absurd to me. Lunchroom
monitors “back in the day” had little trouble keeping track of who was little Derrick and who was little George, with no need for fingerprints or photo IDs. The monitors knew who we were
and often had relationships with us: imagine that! And even if groups of children from other schools (or, the horror, homeschooled children!) had snuck into lunchrooms so they could steal taxpayer-subsidized mystery meat, I can’t see how it would have been cost effective (or relationship effective) for the government to go all high-tech on their ass.
I suspect, however, that there are other reasons for the fingerprinting. Especially if the students are children of color, it may be useful for the police to keep the prints on file for later use: it saves trouble when figuring out how to send them to prison. But I’m sure there’s another reason, too, that works for all children in our culture, regardless of race: forcing children to endure day after day of sitting in rows bored out of their skulls breaks their wills
and destroys their intelligence sufficiently to prepare them to take their proper places in adult society, where they will lead lives of drudgery, obedience, tedium, painful employment, and quiet desperation. As R. D. Laing wrote, “Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQ’s if
possible.” So too this forced fingerprinting prepares children for adulthood, in this case for lives in which they will submit to more or less constant surveillance.
Say hello to the twenty-first century.
One of the pioneers of modern surveillance was the eighteenth century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, designer of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is a blueprint for a prison designed
as a cylinder, with cells radiating from the central guard station. There are no nooks or crannies where prisoners can hide. The
cells are always lit, while the guard station is dark. Because prisoners can never tell whether or when they are being watched, they have no choice but to presume that at every moment they are
Here is what, with the Panopticon, Bentham proposed to accomplish: “Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the
Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!” Perhaps more to the point, whoever ran the Panopticon would gain a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”
Bentham was ambitious. This power was to be used widely, for “punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.”
Here’s how it works: “It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes
of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.”
The Panopticon serves as the model for modern supermaximum security prisons such as Pelican Bay in Crescent City, California. But Bentham’s ideas have been even more influential than that.
Indeed, as Michel Foucault wrote in the 1970s, the Panopticon has become a model for the entire culture. The Panopticon has become not only a “simple idea in Architecture,” but also a
metaphor for the power relations that undergird modern civilization: “Hence,” Foucault wrote, “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent ivisibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much
and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be
observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for
the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is
a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower,
one sees everything without ever being seen.”
That is bad enough, but Foucault continues, “It is an important mechanism, for it automizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. . . . There is a machinery that
assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power.”
When I was very young, I sometimes heard the phrase, “money is the root of all evil.” When old enough to look it up myself, I found that the quote was inaccurate. Paul (or at least the authors of the King James Bible) had actually said that the love of money was the problem, and I grew quite fond of correcting my elders on this score. Now as an adult I’ve come full circle and see that
my childhood understanding was closer to the point. The only word I quibble with is all, as I think we need to leave room for the evil caused by patriarchy, industrialism, nation-states, military
technologies, vivisection, Christianity and other institutional religion (including the apostle Paul himself), numbness, and the designated hitter rule.
Money. I remember how when I was a kid the backs of dollar bills used to creep me out. To the left of where it says “In God We Trust” (how weird, I thought, to have that phrase on something
that is the root of all evil?), there was the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States, with its truncated pyramid and its all-seeing
eye. Combine my understanding that money is the root of all evil with my belief that the devil could see my every move, and you might get a sense of why I never put an upside-down dollar bill
on my nightstand before I went to sleep.
I’ve since learned that the eye on the back of the dollar bill does not belong to the devil, but, essentially as scary, to God, or in the secular language of the U.S. State Department, to providence. It is there because, as the Latin phrase ANNUIT COEPTIS written over the eye in this Great Seal means, “the eye of providence has
favored our undertakings.” George Washington, whose face, of course, appears on the front of the bill, put it well (if a tad awkwardly) in his inaugural address: “No people can be bound to
acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent
nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
Certainly the Revolutionary War came at a providential moment for Washington, one of the richest men in the new United States. His fortune—and of course we can say the same
for essentially all fortunes, but this was especially true in his case—was founded on land illegally taken from Indians. In fact, his fortune was so fraudulent that the (British) governor of
Virginia declared Washington’s title to these lands null and void. “Providentially” the Revolutionary War broke out the same
month as this declaration, saving Washington’s fortune.
I’m not sure whether the Indians, whose lands were being stolen by Washington and many others, would be so quick to ascribe the loss of their lands and their way of life—what is these days called genocide—so much to the Invisible Hand of providence as it was to an entire culture of rapacious people hellbent on taking everything
that could be turned into money and destroying everything they did not understand.
Annuit Coeptus. “The eye of providence has favored our undertakings.”
You and I both know who determines what actions are deemed “providential,” that is, ordained by the all-seeing eye of God, and what actions are deemed improvidential, that is, subject
to the all-seeing eye of the guard at the center of the Panopticon.
Similarly, when those in power put on the back of the dollar bill “In God We Trust,” we can have a pretty good idea who this we is, and what we can trust this God—as mediated by those in power—to do.
The controller of the Panopticon thus becomes god, or rather God. Omniscient God. Invisible God. God with oversight both omnipossible and unverifiable. God unapproachable and unknowable. God mediated and represented by those in power.
God so internalized that we would never even conceive of going against His word. Or is it the word of those in power? Power is God. Control is the way to God. Those in control are God.
Perhaps the fear of God was once enough to keep people in line, but for better or worse we live now in what we perceive to be a more secular society. And what happens if those of us in our
cells begin to disbelieve that there is someone at the center of the Panopticon, that we are no longer watched? What will we do? How will we act? How will we act if we no longer believe in original sin, no longer believe we deserve to be in these cells, under the watchful eye of those in power? What if we no longer believe we need their supervision? What will we do then?
And what will those in power do? How will they shift, and whom will they bring in to replace the Old Man who may no longer be there?
Or perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it. Perhaps the Old
God at the center of the Panopticon never left at all but merely changed form. Perhaps we are seen now as clearly as we ever have been. Perhaps the cells are even smaller, the lights brighter, the
space outside our cells ever darker.