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Adrian Wooldridge

China's Surveillance State Will Be the West's Future, Too

Under Xi Jinping, business and government are together weaving a web of surveillance that no Chinese citizen can escape. But even in the West, the arc of the digital revolution is bending toward tyranny. 

All eyes are on you.

All eyes are on you.

Photographer:  Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 1787, Jeremy Bentham wrote a series of letters outlining his idea for a new kind of prison — a panopticon or inspection house — that would “grind rogues honest” by keeping them under constant inspection. The prison would be built in a circle around a central watchtower; the inmates would be isolated in their cells; guards in the watchtower would keep an unceasing watch on their charges.

The inspection system was not to be confined to prisons. Bentham thought it could be used in all sorts of institutions — schools, hospitals, mental asylums, workhouses and factories. This was because its virtues didn’t lie in physical coercion (though Bentham was certainly an enthusiast for coercion, advocating gags for noisy prisoners and masks to prevent them from interacting with each other when they ate together). It lay in the influence of “mind upon mind.”