The Inspection House book review

The Inspection House: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern SurveillanceThe Inspection House: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance by Tim Maly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emily Horne and Tim Maly offer a contemporary tour through the carceral city and disciplinary society. Their “field guide” to the “conceptual terrain” of modern surveillance is a tour through prisons, ports, and financial centers—places where surveillance have encroached on their inhabitants beyond their expectations and certainly beyond the expectations of those whose idea it was to put it in place.

This field guide is mostly a tour through the ideas of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and the post-structuralist Michel Foucault. Using Bentham’s idea of the panopticon (or “inspection house”) prison design, Horne and Maly with the help of Foucault show us how the concept of asymmetrical surveillance has become the standard by which society polices itself.

Most critics point to ubiquitous cameras and the data collection involved with every digital transaction as the full realization of a panoptic society we are resigned to now live in. But this book only briefly talks about CCTV cameras and iPhones. The priority is given to Foucault’s concepts of the carceral city and disciplinary society. In the interest of security, we have adopted the design principles of prisons and brought them into every city to control the flow and behavior of people. Furthermore, these rules, norms, and fears have been internalized: we discipline ourselves.

This is not a wholly bad thing. We hope that others feel certain restrictions on their activities that might harm others. It means we are able to produce sophisticated technologies like the iPhone. And Bentham wanted this kind of self-discipline in prisons in order to reduce the need for corporal punishment. However, there might be psychological traumas unforeseen by these efforts. And now that this physical surveillance and carceral structures are less visible—subsumed in gardens that block explosive-laden trucks or passively tracking our moves through the city—what does this mean to our power to resist: how do we understand the power being wielded?

Unfortunately, this short book doesn’t let us dive deep on these questions. They are left as questions, sometimes not even fully articulated. Horne and Maly offer us a guide through some key ideas and ways they have become real and pervasive in modern society. But I wish they didn’t limit themselves to conceptual terrain. This book would have benefited from photos of the architectures of modern surveillance and a more comprehensive set of activities that walk us through the ideas in order to question and reflect on the society we have created—where we are pleased with it and where we find it lacking or even abhorrent.

Read it for the Bentham and Foucault and for the clever examples. Find a reading group for the rest.

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