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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Martine Kaluszynski (p. 138)

From chapter "Nothing to Fear"

The historian Martine Kaluszynski wrote about the French government at the end of the nineteenth century: “[I]ndustrial growth and urbanization had radically transformed the life and destabilized the existence of a significant proportion of the population. The response of the [government] was to extol the virtues of order, stability, and work, and it did all in its power to enforce respect for these values. . . . [A]nthropometry was not simply a new weapon in the armory of repression, but a revolutionary technique: it placed identity and identification at the heart of government policy, introducing a spirit and set of principles that still exist today.”

When she talks here of “anthropometry,” remember that she’s talking of those quaint anthropometric techniques of measuring heads and ears and arms. But she’s dead-on when she says biometrics was used first as repression and then as basic government policy. That’s how it usually goes. What one generation perceives as repression, the next accepts as a necessary part of a complex daily life. The panoptic sorting and disciplining of the population is the basic bureaucratic method of governance. And it is with us today more than ever.

This is the rational discipline of the modern system. Bureaucrats (and consumers, if they want to get the rewards and avoid the penalties) erase their will and emotions to serve a rational and disciplined machine. The cogs in the machine are rational, geared toward fulfilling certain narrow programmed ends, such as efficiency of production, maintaining high levels of consumption, securing the established socioeconomic order, and so on. The cogs are ever-dedicated to fragmenting community and disciplining themselves. But is the system itself rational? Is it disciplined? Or is it a self-fulfilling circular dead-end? Bureaucracy and its tools, science and technology, have become self-justifying ends in themselves. We know the rules (rules, rules, everywhere) and our duties: go to work, use our spare time to enjoy our work’s fiscal benefits, and protect the system as if it were our home.

But what’s the point?

Well, we all know the answer to that. The point of the machine is that it, like any machine, concentrates power (these days often in the form of wealth). And being dependent on the system, the cogs—that’s generally you and me—also want to make their little share, want to gain a little power for themselves. So liberals and reactionaries alike invent and sell the tools of wealth-making and power-wielding: airport security services, commercialization of information, sorting each other into the various market sectors, and so on.

The original Panopticon consisted of all sticks and no carrots, which is an expensive and unstable way to maintain a system of oppression. Bentham was aware of this, writing, “In stating what this principle will do in promoting the progress of instruction in every line, a word or two will be thought sufficient to state what it will not do. It does give every degree of efficacy which can be given to the influence of punishment and restraint. But it does nothing towards correcting the oppressive influence of punishment and restraint, by the enlivening and invigorating influence of reward.”

That’s a problem. That’s a big problem. Even though the United States is a major exporter of such torture devices as shock batons and “iron wreaths” (head screws progressively tightened around the head or ears) and of course counts torture as a significant tool in its foreign and domestic policy toolbox, the application of these tools, for reasons of administrative and financial ease, are normally limited to those who either can’t be bought or those the panoptic sort determines aren’t worth bothering to buy.

Which means that most of those who have been bought, which means most middle-class Americans and Europeans, which means most who have slid down the right tubes and into the proper bins of the panoptic sort, can feel and believe they aren’t targets for the security apparatus (but of course if they have any fear of terrorists, hurricanes, disease, or crime, the agencies that provide them with “security” have some level of control over them). Those who have been sorted and sold can also say and believe, “Thank God (or providence) we do not live in the dreary societies of the past! Technological progress and democratic self-governance are the fruits of our hard work and virtue, and the average person now [or at least the average human white property owner in the USA] enjoys luxuries and comfort undreamt of by the kings and queens of old—and the new knowledge-based economy means work is easier and more pleasant than ever!”

It is no mistake that modern consumer society provides a corresponding universal, endless, no-escape environment and mind-state of greed and need to go along with its paired mind-state of fear. The shopping mall is the panoptic architecture of consumption. The hallways are endless. You get lost in the stores. The stores are designed to instill a timeless sense of distraction, enchantment, and addiction.

There are two basic ways those in power can convince us to give them information about us, corresponding to our greed and our fear: economic “benefits” and “security.” Economic incentives include, among many other things, giving product rebates to consumers and making social security payments. Security incentives include protecting our bank accounts and keeping “undesirables” from entering “our” country. So bureaucracies, that is, governments and corporations, alternately give us the carrot of economic benefit and the stick of security. Depending on where you are in the panoptic sort, the same carrot-stick may oppress or bless you.