Central to efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has been the monitoring and prevention of the spread of the virus. To do so, governments need to keep discipline amongst their populations and limit their movements. While new big data, artificial intelligence technologies and control mechanisms are being implemented, we are witnessing the emergence of a new global structure of power built with our digital traces. As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the utility of these new trends and devices should not be solely evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in controlling the spread of the virus, but also in terms of their consequences for the global structure of power and the future functioning of states.
History is replete with deadly contagion episodes that have decimated populations. Viruses, these little “insignificant” beings (Žižek 2020), have created the conditions for the emergence of several devices and institutions that have become the very bases of modern nation states. Looking back, censuses, quarantines, hospitals, biometric registers and even punishment for disobedience were first conceived to be necessary to shorten the chains of infections and control the spread of diseases.
But once the crises were over, these devices were kept and instrumentalized by governments to better control their populations and territories and exercise their sovereignty. They became what Foucault called a disciplinary model of power (Foucault 1975). This model, based on a panoptical architecture (Bentham 1995) of societies and institutions, has been working, improving and spreading around the world since the 19th Century. In this panoptical model, found for instance in prisons, hospitals, or schools, a watchman position creates a feeling of constant surveillance among the population, which triggers them to ‘behave themselves’ (assert self-discipline).
Marseille in quarantine. A naval officer with his family
The man who brought the plague to Milan
Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF (National Library of France)
The unprecedented scale and speed of responses to the COVID-19 crisis we face have unveiled a process of profound transformation in the architecture of power around the world. The panoptical disciplinary model from the 19th and 20th centuries seems insufficient to retain order in an increasingly interconnected and complex global system. The global lockdown we are part of is a step backward that reveals the weakening of the disciplinary model that supports modern nation states. At the same time, it reveals the emergence of new trends and devices with an unprecedented capacity to reshape, in a short period of time, human practices, imaginaries, and policies around the world. A huge transformation is taking place without a prior careful analysis, mostly based on new forms of population control and surveillance.
Mass harvesting of biometric data
An important distinction from other historical health crises is the largely unquestioned mass harvesting of biometric data—what Yuval Noah Harari (2020) has called a transition from ‘over-the-skin’ to ‘under-the-skin’ surveillance. Through this transition, largely sustained by contactless technologies, such as cameras measuring body temperature in airports, or at the entrance of Buddhist temple (as shown in the picture below), we have come to normalize images of temperature, breath, and heartrate screenings. But also, any actions that bear a resemblance to coughing, sneezing or blowing our noses can be collected and reported. This data is being used to identify possibly infected persons and control their mobility.
Buddha tooth relic temple, Singapore. 09 March 2020. Credits: Peter van Leeuwen.
The public seems to be rapidly accepting the risks involved with providing biometric data for prevention purposes, but caution is needed: While these devices may help solve urgent public health concerns, we do not know how they will be used afterwards.
Using apps to ‘manage the spread of the virus’
The emergence of mobile ‘coronavirus apps’ is another phenomenon that has become an integral part of collecting biometric data and limiting citizens’ freedom of movement during this pandemic. The Alipay HealthCode app was developed for the Chinese government to assign users three colour codes based on their health status and travel history, and a QR code that can be scanned at any time by law enforcement authorities. The app has specificities according to each city, but the three color codes are a general commonality. The app relies on self-reporting by the user integrated with medical information provided by the government. Yet, the app does not make clear to users what data is being stored, who can make use of it, and how it is used.
The global chaos has pushed different governments around the world to adopt approaches that have been conceived and designed under authoritarian regimes. For example, Andrus Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission, promoted Singapore’s TraceTogether Bluetooth-operating app as a key component for preventing COVID-19 spread in the EU. Countries like the Netherlands are looking at apps to trace the movements of citizens, but are facing resistance in light of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that prioritizes anonymization and privacy. Despite a strong common legal framework, we see the EU struggling to choose between ‘giving in’ and disregarding the complexities that the technological solutions impose on privacy rights in order to contain the spread of the virus, or protecting the rights of their citizens to privacy and the future of their democracies.
As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the relevance of these new trends and devices should also be evaluated regarding their future consequences in the structure of power and the functioning of the states. Which of the array of devices, technologies, and policies imposed to us during this crisis will governments or corporations keep in the aftermath to exercise control over their citizens and reinforce their power? The reality in the Global South is even more complicated, considering their limited technical capacities and lack of privacy regulations.
A new architectural power design
The current global quarantine reveals a weakened of the panoptical model, a lack of capacity of the states to keep discipline and order among their populations. However, the emergence of new trends and devices suggest that a new architectural power design is in the making: an omniopticon model. This model offers the same disciplinary advantages of the Bentham’s design, yet it is designed in a virtual space. In this model everybody can be seen, heard, localized, measured and predicted without the necessity of towers, walls, windows, or watchdogs. As in the panoptical model, it doesn’t matter who exercises power, or even if there is someone actually watching: the discipline is internalized by fear.
However, two differences can be identified. First, this new model is not limited to the actual existence of institutions or physical spaces that discipline individuals. It is diluted around us; we contribute to it every day through our digital traces, our physical movements, eye blinks, and heartbeats. It can be anywhere in the world at any time and therefore it cannot be contained or driven by limited entities as the modern states. We are facing the emergence of a global structure of power with no modern political entity capable of controlling it.
Secondly, the Bentham’s ideal model guaranteed that the watchman position is held by any individual and therefore anyone outside the panopticon could supervise the watchman. A form of accountability to prevent a tyranny. In the omniopticon, the feature of accountability is replaced by automation led by big data and artificial intelligence technologies. No human can hold the position of the watcher, neither can they supervise something they don’t understand. As in the quarantines of the 17th century, this new disciplinary model that is taking over will lock all of us (the watchdogs included) in our cells, leave the keys outside the doors, and will leave no-one to reopen them afterwards.
 Green allows individuals to travel relatively freely, yellow confines individuals to their homes for isolation, while red indicates individuals with a confirmed COVID-19 case who should be in quarantine.
 This comprises medical records, travel history records, and information regarding being in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1995. Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. Edited by Miran Bozovic. London: Verso.
Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard.
Title Image: The new medusa, “it’s a good thing i can’t see myself”. Credits: Richard Scott
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.
About the authors:
Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies/Erasmus University Rotterdam, in The Netherlands. She holds a Ph.D. in development studies and has an interdisciplinary background in law, gender, social studies of science and technology, and sustainable development. She is also a lecturer at Erasmus University College.
Henry Chavez is a Research Associate at the Science, Technology and Society Lab (CTS-Lab) FLACSO, in Ecuador. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France. He has an interdisciplinary background in social sciences, economics, and politics; and is a specialist in social studies of science, technology and innovation; anthropology of global systems; public policy design and evaluation.