Since the ‘80s, the social sciences and the art world have been somewhat enchanté by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a history of prisons and surveillance, using it as a means to understand the origins and operations of social control. One of the conceptual pillars of this text is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a set of architectural and managerial practices that organize prisoners who are centrally, yet covertly, observed and controlled. It’s a set-up intended to coerce inmates into eventually monitoring themselves.
It is in this optique that the authors of The Inspection House describe seven case studies wherein “consciously or unconsciously, the disciplinary apparatus seeks to extend itself.” This field guide carefully describes specific historical and geographical instances of architecture and technology designed for limiting social space, covertly observing people, or accumulating their information: all in order to change their behaviour. There’s the Ring of Steel, the name given to the London financial district’s response to IRA attacks through street modifications and CCTV monitoring. There’s also Oakland, California’s Domain Awareness Center, a network of cameras and gunfire audio sensors, initially meant to compensate for the city’s ineffective police force. And, presciently, there’s the iPhone, that tangled, mysterious, device. The authors suggest, somewhat convincingly, that as our personal data is exploited, we might still harness the technology to observe and monitor back, a global example of what Foucault would call the “multi-directionality of power.”
It’s easy to get intrigued by the eye-opening explanations and arguments that are usually supported with descriptive accounts and textual excerpts. Although it is not truly in the form of a “field guide,” lacking diagrams and glossaries, it still fulfills its basic function as an instructional resource. And unlike the usual linguistic labyrinth that critical theory texts often flaunt, the accessible language makes it a worthy addition to any social critic or activist’s potpourri. (Marc Tremblay)