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2007 03 14
Angle of Incident #45: Seminar 7, Surveillance, Part 2
The first offering of the afternoon was from seminarist Johnathan Wong, who brought to the table a fascinating series of expansions and extrapolations from the much-considered concept of surveillance and (see Foucault’s writings on the prison) the idea of the omni-observational Panopticon structure:


The Satellite Gaze
August 16th 1960. Joseph W. Kittinger, a pilot and captain of the United States Air Force, steps off a high-altitude balloon thirty kilometers above the earth. Carrying a film camera, his vertiginous freefall of nearly fourteen minutes is recorded. For all intents and purposes he is the first person ever to see Earth from space. What is significant about “The Big Jump” is not just that it marks the beginning of the Space Age, but sets in motion a new era of earth observation made possible via advancements in communications and imaging technology—or what I’d like to call the “satellite gaze”. By the satellite gaze, I’m referring to the various technical means developed (by government agencies normally) for the purposes of monitoring, measuring, and analyzing the planet and its inhabitants from the upper atmosphere—the same technologies we take for granted that relay our telephone calls, text messages, emails, and favourite reruns of The Simpsons around the world.
Another product of the satellite’s gaze can be seen conspicuously on our daily weather forecast: watch any of the major news channels and notice how GoogleEarth has been adapted to present weather reports, the zooming-in-and-out-effect a horrible cliché by now. Less benign, perhaps, the appropriation into mainstream media of mapping and imaging applications—especially ones authored and controlled by internet giants like Google—raises certain questions about the limits of privacy and the distribution of power and knowledge in our global technoculture; issues that recall Michel Foucault’s critique of surveillance in nineteenth-century society. Could Bentham’s Panopticon Prison, I wonder, also serve as a model for today’s global monitoring systems? Moveover, does the proliferation of artificial satellites, whether devised for telecommunications, tracking weather patterns, or for military and reconaissance purposes, and their integration with networks on the ground, represent an extension of Foucault’s idea of the “carceral continuum”? In other words, have we built watchtowers in the air?
Writes Foucault in Discipline and Punish: “The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which the power is exercised.” (204) And elsewhere, “We are much less Greeks than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism.” (217)

Work Cited
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison [Surveiller et punir.]. 2nd Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Image Sources
(1) http://p6.hostingprod.com/@www.kirchersociety.org/blog/?p=448
(2) http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/ and SeaWiFS Project, NASA/FSFC, and GeoEye
National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC), NOAA Satellite and Information Service
(3) J.Wong

[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 03/14 at 01:20 PM

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