REVIEW: The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance

The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance
Emily Horne & Tim Maly
Coach House Books (2014)
Read by Veronica Belafi

Emily Horne and Tim Maly’s The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance (2014) invites readers to observe and question daily institutional structures. “Who’s watching you?” the authors ask. “Can you correctly identify a panopticon?” they tease (n.p.).

Jeremy Bentham’s 1891 Panopticon; or The Inspection House outlines a design to “make one particular class of people—convicted criminals—live very publicly” (15). With its collection of one-way windows and a central observatory tower, Bentham’s panopticon affirms the watchman’s presence to his ring of inmates: “They become their own jailers, forced into docility by clever construction techniques” (15). Michel Foucault popularized the panopticon in Discipline & Punish (1975), using Bentham’s detailed design to examine social structures and power dynamics in a larger cultural context. For Foucault, an increasingly disciplinary society means rethinking disciplinary practices. Anyone, therefore, “can provide the observation that will produce the necessary effects of anxiety and paranoia in the prisoner” (19).

Horne and Maly’s Inspection House “is about what Bentham was selling, what Foucault bought—and says we all bought—and why Foucault seems especially relevant today” (26). As Horne and Maly distil these concepts for us within the context of our modern world, they address an audience that is perhaps, now more than ever, ready to question—or at least recognize—the ideologies built into the structures and systems that make up our modern cities. Readers might begin with the question: How does all of this theory apply in a post-911, surveillance-heavy world where names like the publicized Edward Snowden and the fictional Piper Chapman become common conversation tags? Horne and Maly pose this challenge: “Who’s watching you? Can you watch back?” (n.p.).

Horne and Maly conspire with their readers—not changing, but instead, fostering an inquisitive perspective on architectural and institutional surveillance policies. Their words are honest, at the very least; their content, a little unsettling; their research, historically grounded and all the more concrete; and the real-world applications of their theories are too thought-provoking to ignore. From their discussions of late eighteenth century penitentiaries and labour laws, to detention sites like Guantanamo Bay, to liminal border- and port-trading zones, to the city planning of London’s Ring of Steel, to the drones and CCTV cameras that troll public spaces, to the very personal “peer-to-peer” social network surveillances enabled by our “smart” phones, Horne and Maly promote a brand of transparency that has our ears perked and our eyes peeled. Their pointed introduction, “To Whom It Ought to Concern,” places readers in a state of instant and constant awareness for the rest of the book. To maintain this state is in our best interest:

Use this guide to help you identify, classify and resist the panopticons and pseudo-panopticons you come across in your daily life. An understanding of the genus is critical to understanding the ecology of surveillance culture.

We wish you luck,
Emily & Tim