The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Panopticon

I’ll start this post with a brief recap:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) is a concept in game theory that describes the situation of two suspects who have been apprehended by the authorities. In the PD, the authorities need a confession in order to get the conviction they want, so they come up with a scenario to try to convince each suspect to confess. They offer each prisoner a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession that incriminates the other prisoner. If both prisoners stay silent – a play that is conventionally called “cooperate” – they both get a short sentence. If one prisoner chooses to “cooperate” but the other prisoner makes a confession – a play called “defect” – the defector goes free and the cooperator gets a full, long sentence. If both “defect” they both get a medium sentence.

Like the Traveler’s Dilemma, it is better in the Prisoner’s Dilemma for both players to cooperate – choosing (100) or choosing to stay silent. Also like the TD, in the PD if one player cooperates, the other player can increase his payoff by defecting – choosing (99), or choosing to confess. And finally, if one player defects – by choosing (2), or confessing – the other player can mitigate the harm done by also defecting.

The Panopticon is a philosophical concept that describes the situation of prisoners in a more general sense. The original panopticon was a design for a physical structure that would house prisoners in such a way as to maximize the number of inmates who could be supervised by one warden. This design consisted of a central tower where an observer could remain unseen by the inmates but from which all of the inmates could be seen. The inmates were situated in individual cells surrounding the central tower, separate from each other.

The idea of the panopticon is that this situation – isolation and the perpetual possibility of surveillance, would produce within each prisoner a sort of self-surveillance. Each prisoner would know at all times that he could be under supervision, and so each prisoner will act at all times as though he were under supervision.

The difference between self-surveillance and regular surveillance, though, is that self-surveillance can be much more intrusive. After all, an outside observer can only see certain physical manifestations of our actions – in other words, can only see what our actions look like. We, on the other hand, can, in a sense, see what our actions are. We form the intent that turns a motion into a gesture, an activity into an action, a sound into a word. We can read our own minds.

This paves the way for what I like to call the panoptic model of power. The panoptic model of power says that power is constituted and magnified by the effects of isolation and self-surveillance. Isolation and self-surveillance are interlocking, mutually reinforcing forces – in other words, isolation helps constitute self-surveillance and self-surveillance helps constitute isolation. A good example of how this works is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The most obvious intersection of the PD and the panoptic model of power is isolation. Without isolation, the PD would not be a dilemma. Imagine the PD with both prisoners in the same room. They can talk to each other, they can see each other, and they know what the other one is doing at all times. In other words, you’ve removed the hope that one player can defect without the other player defecting, and so now the options are only (defect, defect) or (cooperate, cooperate). Between those two options, one is strictly better, and it’s the one that benefits both players the most – so there’s no dilemma.

The self-surveillance part of the PD may not be as obvious. First we can look at the effects: The expected effect of the PD is that both prisoners confess. Is not confession a form of self-surveillance? It’s self-incrimination, certainly. One might expect the prisoners to provide additional information to the authorities in the course of their confession – details of the crime, perhaps the location of weapons used in the crime, perhaps details about other accomplices, or motives, or planning. In other words, the PD goes a lot deeper than the surveillance the authorities were able to place upon the prisoners without the PD.

To find the cause, we need only locate the central observer. In the panopticon, the prisoner exercises self-surveillance because the prisoner might be under surveillance. In the PD, the prisoner confesses because the other prisoner might confess. In the panopticon, the possibility of being watched leads the prisoner to watch himself. In the PD, the possibility of being incriminated leads the prisoner to incriminate himself.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, thus, provides both an example of the panoptic model of power at work, and an insight into one of the mechanisms of the panoptic model of power.

February 17, 2008 Posted by | Game Theory, Power | , , , , , , | 2 Comments