Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2007

Welcome to the Panopticon

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 11:34 pm

Jeremy Bentham’s design for Panopticon

The other week something called Altiris was installed on our computers at work. This has led to a certain amount of anxiety since the software, supposedly intended to monitor and administer software configurations, can also be used to check what we are doing on our computers–including what websites we visit and how often. Some programmers have sworn off checking their bank accounts or train schedules online at work because they are afraid that big brother is watching.

Altiris, which was purchased a while back by Symantec, does not really give any inkling on its website that the software is designed for workplace surveillance. However, a 2005 article from www.processor.com does:

Most IT admins certainly do not relish the thought of having to access co-workers’ email accounts, files, or online activities. However, policy or legal liability issues may one day necessitate that you monitor your network users’ workstations. A plethora of tools exists to make the process relatively painless, if applied correctly.

Pedestal Software’s Altiris SecurityExpressions audits desktops, laptops, and servers to ensure adherence to either specific enterprise or best practices policies. The system security policy audit and compliance software also offers hundreds of preset configurations from which IT admins can select.

Meanwhile, Columbia’s stated policy on the use of computers says nothing about “wasting time”. It is only concerned with the obvious problems of wasting bandwidth, pornography, etc.

Use of University systems or networks for commercial purposes, except where explicitly approved, is strictly prohibited.

Frivolous, disruptive, or inconsiderate conduct in computer labs or terminal areas is not permitted.

No University computing facility may be used for playing computer games.

Even though none of this applies to me, I can’t get the image of some administrator at an oversized computer terminal monitoring activity around the campus out of my mind. Back in 1969, I had a job at the American Stock Exchange maintaining a system called Stockwatch which was programmed to look for unusual trading activity. If there was a spike that went beyond certain parameters, it would require further investigation to ferret out insider trading or some other illicit activity. Would visits to the LBO-Talk archives or my blog set off an alarm on Altiris? I could just hear them saying, “There’s Proyect up to his old tricks again. If he makes one more visit to LBO-Talk, he’s out of here.”

The idea of being monitored in this fashion reached its classic expression in Jeremy Bentham’s proposal for a Panopticon, a type of prison that would allow the authorities to look in on the prisoners without them being able to know that they were being watched. The wiki on Panopticon explains:

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a military school in Paris designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived at it as a solution to the complexities involved in the handling of large numbers of men. Bentham supplemented this principle with the idea of contract management, that is, an administration by contract as opposed to trust, where the director would have a pecuniary interest in lowering the average rate of mortality. The Panopticon was intended to be cheaper than the prisons of his time, as it required fewer staff; “Allow me to construct a prison on this model,” Bentham requested to a Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law, “I will be the gaoler. You will see … that the gaoler will have no salary — will cost nothing to the nation.” As the watchmen cannot be seen, they need not be on duty at all times, effectively leaving the watching to the watched. According to Bentham’s design, the prisoners would also be used as menial labour walking on wheels to spin looms or run a water wheel. This would decrease the cost of the prison and give a possible source of income.

While Bentham’s proposal was never carried out, the spirit has lived on in the workplace where the control of labor becomes ever more critical in the later stages of capitalism. With Frederic Taylor’s scientific management techniques being adopted by Henry Ford and other industrialists, the notion of a Panopticon takes on added urgency. If it is necessary for workers not to waste a minute on non-work related activities, there has to be a mechanism to enforce that.

In “Discipline and Punish,” Michel Foucault argued that it was not only the prison that is vulnerable to the Panopticon. All hierarchical institutions like the army, high school, the hospital and the factory have evolved to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.

Shoshona Zuboff’s “The Age of the Smart Machine” examines the modern workplace to see how deep the roots of Panopticon have sunk. Her work was discussed in Simon Head’s “The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age”. (Head has been interviewed a number of times on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” and I thank him for referring me to Head’s work.) Head writes:

The attainment of panoptic power has been a goal of scientific managers ever since Taylor created his shop floor planning departments, with their hordes of “functional foremen.” But it is only with the coming of the computer, and the computer’s empowerment with the attachment of monitoring software, that panoptic power has become a real and overwhelming presence in offices and factories. The empowered computer that confronts the employee at the beginning of every working day is nothing less than Foucault’s “tall outline of the central tower from which he [the employee] is being spied upon.” Once the computer is up and running, so too is the possibility of managerial monitoring and control, though at any given moment the employee can never know whether this power is actually being exercised.

He also quotes the top executive of a paper manufacturing company who revealed to Zuboff his own “panoptic” dreams, even though it is doubtful he ever read Bentham or Foucault:

My vision is that one wall of my office will be a screen. I can hit buttons and see my reports or any other data I want. The data base will integrate the entire organization, and all the data will be in agreement … I want the president of the company to have a screen on his wall. We should be able to look at the data on a minute-by-minute basis, and the screen should be continuously updated.

It also sounds like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, doesn’t it? The industrialist has a closed circuit TV (this was a 1927 film–so visionary for its time) that allows him to watch his workers without them watching him.

From Lang’s “Metropolis”

After reflecting on Altiris for several hours this week, I had an epiphany. Or at least one of my co-workers helped me to reach an epiphany. This was a Russian Jew who as might be expected had no sympathies for socialism, especially the Soviet variety. I asked him if Soviet computer programmers ever had to worry about losing their job through downsizing, outsourcing, below-par performance reviews, etc. He said that this was not particularly a problem in Soviet Russia. You never saw plant or office closings. In fact, there was always a shortage of workers. The only reason one could lose their job was through “disloyalty” as he put it. This did not mean disloyalty to the employer, but to the state. In other words, as long as you kept your mouth shut about society or politics, you never had to worry about losing your job.

Meanwhile in the US, I can write fiery condemnations of the government until the cows come home, but nobody will pay it the slightest attention–just as long as I do it on my own time. Furthermore, even if I mind my p’s and q’s at work, there is no guarantee that I will keep my job because universities like Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Princeton continue to adopt corporate-type practices, both in terms of their drive to increase what amounts to profits (student enrollment, government grants, etc.) and to cut costs. This might mean using adjuncts. It also might mean inducing Panopticon type self-discipline among the administrative staff. If I can’t be trusted to spend every minute of the day on my assignments, then they presumably will find somebody else to take my place.

So there you have it. In the Soviet Union, you had economic security but worries about becoming an “enemy of socialism”. In the US, you can be an enemy of capitalism all you want, but you have no chance–at least for the time being–of abolishing the system that keeps you in chains. As long as that system exists, the worker will find himself or herself existing in the state so eloquently described by Karl Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.



  1. Very interesting. I like Zuboff. I have a new book that is about 1/2 finished — The Heavy Manacles of Capitalism. Here is a brief mention of her:

    In a less dramatic example of the irrationality of absolutism in managerial control, Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at the Harvard Business School, reported on her experience as a consultant for a number of paper factories at a time when computer controls were first being introduced throughout the industry. In one factory, which she called Tiger Creek Mill, the computer system was initially accessible by everybody, including the workers on the production line. Workers could see the same information on costs and prices as management. At first, the workers used their new found information to make very profitable modifications of the production process (Zuboff 1988, pp. 255 67).
    Economic theory and business logic would have us expect that management would reward these workers for contributing to the profitability of the corporation. Instead, management, horrified by the possibility that workers were going to make managerial control at least partially irrelevant, quickly cut off the workers’ access to the system. Control turned out to have more allure than profits.

    Comment by mperelman — August 31, 2007 @ 11:52 pm

  2. Meanwhile, if you want to keep your doings at work hidden, take a look at this guide to hiding your internet activity at work.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — September 1, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  3. I work at a convenience store. I see this in my own job in the form of “security” cameras. Ostensibly they are there to deter shoplifting and robbery, but they’re really there to keep an eye on the workers, to make sure we’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing. The only time the boss ever mentions the cameras is when she wants to keep the employees in line: “I’ll be watching the tapes.” We know they can’t watch everything the cameras record, but we’d better be on our best behavior just in case…

    Comment by John — September 1, 2007 @ 3:18 pm

  4. Your analysis about job security and workplace politics in the Soviet Union (and by extension, other “actually existing socialist states” is similar to the conclusion reached by Victor Grossman (formerly Stephen Wechsler) in his memoir Crossing the River about his experience as an American defector to the GDR.

    Comment by Nathaniel — September 1, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  5. Altiris has fifty+ products that help IT staff do everything from deploy a large number of PC’s quickly to track your help desk calls. But there is absolutely no surveillance software in our catalog. The audit tool you mention checks to make sure that required security products are installed and up to date (like your anti-virus engine), that Windows security settings are correct, etc. About the only thing we have that could be considered “surveillance” is Altiris Inventory Solution, which can report what software is installed on a machine. So if you’ve installed The Interactive Communist Manifesto (or Barbie Princess Bride, or whatever) yourself, IT staff *could* know about it if they are looking.

    *If* Columbia is monitoring Internet activity in some fashion (which I doubt), it’s most likely being done at the network firewalls, not locally on each PC. In my experience, however, most institutions of higher education don’t do even basic logging (except maybe temporarily when troubleshooting a network problem), let alone Web content filtering or per-user logging. I was the product manager for a popular Internet access control product for 2.5 years. Universities were clear with us that they are not interested in either restricting or monitoring users’ Internet activity. Principles of academic freedom are taken very seriously.

    I’m sure that if you contact Candace Fleming’s office, they can explain both what Altiris product(s) is/are in use at Columbia and why, and also whether Internet traffic is being logged in any fashion.

    Unfortunately, knowing that the Altiris agent isn’t even close to what you assumed it to be interfered with my ability as a reader to accept the rest of what you said, despite it’s validity and value. If you use this content elsewhere, I recommending removing the opening part. *Or* go get a spyware scanner (http://www.spycop.com/ is a good choice) and see if you may actually have something like that on your machine… 🙂

    Comment by Scott Jones — September 5, 2007 @ 7:24 pm

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