Discover more from Seeking the Hidden Thing
The Digital Panopticon: the Atheist's Answer for God
In a secular, atheist, materialist society, can you find a basis for morality that does not depend on some version of "Thus says the Lord"?
This article builds on a recent piece of mine working through the theology of privacy. Do yourself a favor and read “Privacy: the Anti-Human Human Right” through first so I don’t have to re-hash it all here.
The algorithm taketh away and the algorithm giveth. In this case, it has provided more fodder for me to chew on, more grist for the mill when it comes to thinking about the meaning of the AI powered surveillance state, otherwise known as the “panopticon,” a term drawn from utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea for the ideal prison:
It is interesting that the idea of the panopticon is a prison. We will discuss prison a little more later. The basic idea is that it is impossible for a handful of guards to watch all the prisoners all the time. But what if the inmates did not know if or when they would be watched by a guard. Bentham argued that this uncertainty, never being sure whether someone was observing your behavior, would keep the prisoners in line. Modern CCTV security systems operate on a similar principle.
Because of my recent viewing excursions on Netflix, a combination of watching Dutch language movies to improve my Dutch, along with one or two tech oriented thrillers, my suggestions are now flooded with foreign language Netflix originals, many dealing with dystopian themes. It has been interesting. There are some really good shows in Russian. A couple of days ago, I started on a quirky little Brazilian series in Portuguese (Do yourself a favor and watch it in the original Portuguese with English subtitles. Don’t do overdubbing.) called “Omnisciente.”
The premise of the story is interesting. A company has created a tech, a combination of little camera-sensor devices the size of insects, looking like dragonflies, that buzz around you watching everything you do. The data from the little flying insects is not watched by any person, but rather is tracked by a sophisticated AI. No human being is able to access the feeds. So no person is technically watching you. Yet if the algorithm determines that you have committed a crime, you are simply convicted and a penalty is handed out.
The story begins when the protagonist’s father is murdered in his own apartment. The problem is that there is no record of the crime on the AI. Crimes are recorded through the perpetrator’s flying sensor-camera, not the victim’s. And because no person can access the feed of another person, the victim’s feed cannot be accessed to see how he was killed. Because of the efficiency of the system, crime in the city has plummeted so much that the police force has effectively been eliminated, so there is no one left who can investigate this suspicious death. This sets the story in motion.
There are some interesting think points. Because this is a system produced by a company, they are selling it to cities. Thus, there are city wide zones now where the drones operate, walled off from the outside world. Within these zones, people have grown up knowing nothing but a life where they are watched 24/7 in every aspect of their life. They are completely comfortable with it. Then, you go outside, where there are normal CCTV cameras monitored by people, those raised “inside” feel creeped out. But the reverse, a boy comes into the zone to go to a concert, hooks up with a girl, but cannot have sex with her with the camera drones watching him. He is creeped out by this.
Seeing this play out, a light suddenly went off. This idea of an “omniscient” 24/7 surveillance system is in fact a technological substitute for God. The title of the series does point you to that conclusion. This seems to be the point that the creators want to make, although they haven’t yet delved deeply the pregnant theological conclusions that could be explored. Maybe they will get there. At one point, a girl was walking alone on a street and a man approached her threateningly. All she had to do was look to her drone, his drone, and back to him again and he wordlessly backed off. Knowing he was being watched and there was 100% certainty he would be held accountable for his actions, he restrained himself. As we discussed in my previous piece, the traditional foundation for morality is based around an all seeing and all knowing God who will judge our every action, hold us accountable and punish us for our sins.
Post-Enlightenment moderns and post-moderns have bristled against this idea. They do not need such superstitions. They do not need some bogeyman idea of God to make them afraid so as to compel them to do what is right. They do not need fear of punishment, the fires of hell, in order to be scared into doing what is right. As rational beings they can work out for themselves the basics of right and wrong. As basically good people, they can gather together and work out a social compact upon upon which everyone agrees and this will then govern behavior. It has long been demonstrated philosophically that this is a sham. And the proof lies all around us.
Because of the assault of the Enlightenment through technology, science and the market upon Christian belief and teaching, we have now largely closed ourselves off to the supernatural and the transcendent. Functionally, even when we profess a genuine belief in a transcendent God, most of us live our lives as materialists. Very few of us these days truly live with a genuine “fear of the Lord.” We do not tremble before God. Because of this, for far too many of us, the knowledge of God does not restrain our actions. We do not fear divine punishment.
So we replace the transcendent with the horizontal, the historical, the social. Excommunication no longer make us tremble. For us, fear is generated by the law, by getting caught and by getting punished. Because we no longer count on God to punish the wicked, we must do it within the bounds of history and society. There are no longer two layers to justice, the vertical and the horizontal. They have been collapsed into one. Gone is restorative justice rooted in “an eye for an eye” in which a penalty is paid, but it is paid such a way that it attempts to restore the balance between people again. Now there is just the fires of hell. We call these prisons. Because, in our enlightened world, we no longer believe in hell, or think it cruel, we take it upon ourselves to cast people into the lake of fire. We treat prisons like some kind of purgatory in which its tortures will help cleanse and rehabilitate prisoners, making them good again; but we do not have a mechanism which restores a criminal’s relationship with society again. But we are ok with that. We have a hell in which to cast the wicked and that is all we need.
We saw this dynamic with the Covid restrictions. More watching. More monitoring. Contact tracing. The addition of a new layer of “coverings” which would then make everyone feel “safe” in society. This is the essence of surveillance policing. The more we watch people all the time, the less likely they are to commit crimes. If we extend this to the extreme, as they do in Omnisciente, and everyone is watched all the time in every situation, effectively we have admitted that we need the watchful eye of God upon us all the time if we are going to promote a good society in which everyone feels “safe.” The moment anyone steps out of line, they are quickly punished with fines or being sent off to the horizontal version of hell, the prison.
The techno-optimist left looking to implement society wide AI surveillance have effectively admitted they need God. But it is no longer a true transcendent God, it is a historical god of their own making, one they control, one which effectively makes them the moral tech demigods. Whether the techno-optimist left knows it or not, they have effectively admitted that the Enlightenment or Critical Theory cannot provide a moral framework for society, a framework that can maintain the order necessary for society to flourish. They need an all-knowing and all-seeing god. But they will build that god themselves, and they will control it. And for all who run afoul of them and their god, there will be plenty of earthly hells called prisons there to punish offenders. The left has taken its living Christian heritage, set fire to it, burned it to the ground and now wishes to replace all it has destroyed with a totalitarian AI powered surveillance state.