The camera stares quietly from the distance. Lurking in the corner of a building or prominently placed inside a store, the device records your every move. The message is clear: We are being watched.
Panopticon, Deconstructed: Privacy in the Information Age is the creative component of senior Rebecca Isenhart’s honors thesis. The exhibit features 10 black and white photographs capturing the many ways in which people are watched and controlled, specifically in the city of Boston. On Monday, Nov. 18, Isenhart held a nearly four-hour exhibition in Piano Row’s Multi-Purpose room for students and faculty to observe her work.
The goal of her installation is simple: Isenhart said she wants to inform the public about just how much modern technology tracks our lives. And she wants to know why people don’t seemed too concerned.
“People are reacting in a very lukewarm way,” said Isenhart, a journalism major. “I wanted to know why people didn’t care.”
The exhibit was named after and inspired by the panopticon, a design for prisons created by British social reformer Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The theory was that if you designed a prison as a single, circular row of cells with lights illuminating the cells but not the prison guards themselves, the prisoners would behave. Bentham correctly assumed that the potential of being watched at any given moment would make the prisoners monitor their own behaviors.
However, it was Michel Foucault, a 20th century French philosopher, who put Bentham’s idea was put into other contexts. And according to Isenhart’s thesis, the most recent incarnation of Bentham’s idea is a much more modern and encompassing one.
“What I’m trying to prove is that technology is a panopticon,” said Isenhart, who said she needs to write a 30-page essay to accompany her creative component.
For students in Boston, the photographs will evoke a familiar feeling. In many of the pictures on display at the installation, viewers saw scenes of chain-link fences with signs that read “Private Property” and “No Trespassing.” Other photographs show districts like Downtown Crossing, where circular security cameras are depicted inside each picture.
According to Isenhart, creating a thesis in a city that was a living embodiment of her idea was perfect.
“People in the city are used to people and places with cameras,” said Isenhart. “An urban landscape is the most fertile for this type of project.”
Visually re-creating the idea behind Isenhart’s thesis, the Multipurpose Room featured multiple cameras recording visitors of the installation. On a projection screen, a livestream from the camera inside Isenhart’s laptop made very clear that guests were being observed.
Isenhart stressed the importance of exploring her thesis about surveillance with visuals. Celina Colby, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major, helped Isenhart design the room, said that interactivity with the audience was crucial. For Colby and Isenhart, it was important to duplicate that false first impression of privacy before making people aware that they are never truly alone.
“I wanted to make sure people didn’t realize right away that they were being watched,” said Colby, who said she hoped the installation’s example of monitorization would make visitors open their eyes about being observed in the real world. “It’s a little terrifying. You hear about it, but you never think about traffic cameras when you are crossing the street.”
Between pamphlets, prints, and renting equipment, Isenhart said she spent around $150 for the installation. According to her, the honors program reimburses students on their creative thesis up to $500.
Jason Roush, Isenhart’s thesis advisor, said he was eager to visit the installation. Throughout this semester, he and Isenhart have talked about Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and departing NSA director Keith B. Alexander among many other recent examples of surveillance scandals. It became obvious that Isenhart should create a thesis at least partly based on the news stories that have captured her attention.
“It’s a terrific idea at this particular moment in history,” said Roush, himself taken aback by the informative frankness of the exhibit. “It’s a little startling to see how much infringement of our privacy is made.”
For Isenhart, that ability to infom students about their constant surveilance is just another reason why her thesis felt like the perfect topic to tackle.
“It seems like a good thing to know,” said Isenhart. “Not just as a journalist, but as a citizen.”