During the first couple of decades of the 19th century, British economist Jeremy Bentham gnawed with great vigor on the leg of the Queen’s purse holders. What he wanted was support for a model prison design. The structure, he told British MP’s, would guarantee “morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated and instruction diffused.” He christened his utopian beast the Panopticon.
In Benthem’s version, the Big House would allow for constant surveillance of both the kept and their keepers (Panopticon is Greek for “all seeing”). It would be a large, circular building of cast iron and glass, with cells around the outside edge. A dungeon master would sit in a tower at the center of the circle, with “speaking tubes” running from his office to each cell. It was to be a one-man continuous surveillance pod for every sight and sound in the complex – a sort of Godhead in the house of detention. But that wasn’t the best part.
Benthem, who considered himself a philosopher of sorts, believed the strongest feature of his Orwellian castle was that neither the prisoners nor guards would know if they were being watched (or listened to). But the assumption alone would weigh heavier on them than any warden’s whip, said Benthem. He even postulated that there was no need for an actual watcher, so long as there were regular public floggings – for offences imaginary or otherwise. Though Benthem never did find a benefactor for his hall of mirrors, it wasn’t because the House of Lords were squeamish on surveillance. Long before Moses went nose to nose with Pharaoh, those perched in the nests of power have coveted the all-reaching finger of God. But in an empire where the sun never sets, what the Home Office really needed was a Panopticon planet. Now, two centuries later, Britain’s new world spawn has finally figured out a way to build it.
According to a recent article by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone magazine, the United States military now has more than 19,000 unmanned aerial drones floating in the clouds. No one knows how many the CIA has. And at 6 billion dollars a year in sales, the market is growing – with more than 50 countries lined up to sit in the seat of the all-seeing-eye. One military model whose popularity is soaring is the “Solar Eagle” – a surveillance drone with a wingspan of 400 feet. Powered by the sun, it stays aloft for 5 years (at a fraction of the price it costs to launch a spy satellite). If all this seems like just a neato way to keep an eye on Middle Eastern terrorists and Iranian centrifuges, look again. In February of this year, the US Congress passed a law asking for the Federal Aviation Administration to “accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems” in US skies. Exactly where those US skies begin and end in the 21st century is a little foggy. Since Canada became a signatory to something called the North American Security Corridor in 2008, drones have liberally patrolled both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. And on America’s other border, unmanned US surveillance aircraft have been spotted far enough inside Mexican airspace that they just might be the poolside paparazzi at your next all-inclusive week in Mesoamerica. But maybe giving the US government a birds-eye view of your next white-sand romp with the wife is a price you‘re willing to pay to feel safe. If so, just remember that Photo Shop isn’t the software that drones like best. Their real supremacy is first-person shooters – like Mech Warrior 3 – where no one has a higher score than US President, Barack Obama.
In his first three years, Obama authorized 268 known drone strikes – more than five times that of George Bush during his two terms in office. The reported body count now exceeds 3000, including 800 civilian deaths. One of those innocents was Afghan human rights advocate, Zabet Amanullah. Apparently, the CIA had been tracking his cell phone for three months before a hellfire missile finally caught up with him turning him into “bug splatter” (US military jargon for a drone kill). Unfortunately for Mr. Amanullah, the omniscient CIA got the wrong phone. Or the wrong Amanullah. Or the wrong country. Splat.
According to Hastings’ article, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has identified 174 of the dead killed by US drones in the past three years as children under the age of 18. So I guess there are worse things than the Pentagon taking pictures of your skinny-dipping daughter in Cancun. And who knew. Maybe just the idea that there’s always someone watching – listening, waiting to crack the whip – will help keep her top on. If that doesn’t work, you could always giver her cell phone number to the CIA.