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So, how did governing powers deployed strategic methods of control over the public? It started with a mix of a few influential people: Sigmund Freud + Edward Bernais + John Nash.

Lets step back:

THE PANOPTICON – How we learnt to police ourselves

The Panopticon is a prison. It is designed to make all of the imprisoned feel like they’re constantly being watched. There is a guard tower in the center with dark glass covering the windows. The prisoners around the outside cannot tell if there is a guard there watching them, but they always feel like they are being watched.

In Discipline and Punishment Foucault uses the Panopticon as a mepahor for how society functions. The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau references this essay in his second orientation. He says Discipline and Punishment studies the mechanisms, the apparatus used to exert power over  a repressed group.  The Panopticonic mindset essentially comes down to ‘feeling like you’re being watched when you’re not being watched.’ This idea of an over-looker, that can keep the crowd at bay, trickled over into many aspects of government. It Blossomed into self-policing.

People start to police themselves when they think they could be caught. Institutions like the Panopticon exploited this to make people behave. Have you ever had that ‘I hope the metal detectors don’t go off’ feeling when leaving a store? Ask, why is that a thought in your mind? Because of our panopticon-ic relationship to our environment. A lot of security cameras in England are just empty boxes. And these exist:

This Panopticonic self-policing, this psychological trapping. It planted a seed. People could be guided by psychology alone. By creating a structure strategically they ‘engineered concent’ ( among the group within the structure. The group within the structure had to use tactics within it to disobey it. In the panopticon notes could only be passed via the windows that looked outside, otherwise the guards might see. This tactical procedure is the only option within the confines of the structure built strategically by it’s governing body. This ‘manufacturing of consent’ has since spilt out into advertising and politics.

EDWARD BERNAYS  – You do what I want

Freud devised a new perception of people. People were actually driven by unconscious desires. People weren’t simple, they were complex emotional mechanisms. Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, helped advertisers in the US  sell their products using Freud’s principles. Bernays is hailed as the founder of PR (public relations). American society at that time was very industrious, and cars were seen as industrial objects. You needed a car to get from point A to point B. That was the sell. Bernays convinced car companies to sell cars to the ego’s of the male’s, using sexuality.

(9 second long car comercial)

In the 1930’s America started to shift from a needs-based culture to a desire-based culture. This shift was carved into the American psyche by exploiting Freud’s theories.

People became trapped in this new world of desire-driven purchases. People began to want. We are all currently trapped in a world that runs in large part on advertising and consumerism. The ability to make people buy things they don’t need became a sought after trait.  Bernays was the go-to guy for advertisers that wanted to figure out how to sell items.

One example of Bernays at work: Men smoked cigarettes; women didn’t. There was a taboo against it. Cigarette companies wanted to tap into the female-market since that could raise revenue by 50%. Bernays created a moment that made this happen. He sent 8 women to the New York City parade and told the press that some women were going to light torches of freedom to express women’s rights. On Bernays’s signal the women lit their cigarettes, and the press were there to take pictures. They published stories about the event, and it worked. Cigarette sales went up among women. He manufactured consent.

This trickery , this deceit, it worked wonders. We are fed images from magazines that tell us what is important to have. Having a Rolex on your wrist is a powerful statement. We tactically choose our attire based on strategies set up by industries.

Bernays then went onto politics, helping with ‘propaganda’. ‘Propaganda’ was not a bad word when he first started using it. When it became a bad word he started using the term ‘Public Relations’, instead.

JOHN NASH – Our government thinks we’re all paranoid schizophrenics

John Nash worked for the RAND corporation, a political think tank. He helped create a depressing perception of human beings. John Nash said people were all selfish. People are only looking out for their own self interest. All people are constantly in a tension, acting to place themselves in a better position over those around them. Life is a struggle. A war. He helped disseminate Game Theory into society.

Game Theory is an overarching term, but one example of it (The Prisoners Dilemma) can be explained as such:  :: :  Two burglars agree to a deal. One steals a jewel, the other pays him for it. They do not want to meet and have agreed on an exchange: the burgler will leave the jewel in one field and, at the same time one,  the buyer will leave the money in a separate field.  While leaving their item they both realize they could gain both the jewel and the money, or risk losing both, if the other doesn’t hold up their end of the deal. If the Jewel thief leaves the diamond and the buyer doesn’t, the jewel thief loses out completely. If the jewel theif takes the jewel with him he could gain both the money and keep the Jewel. John Nash said all people would make the rational decision and take the object. He projected this onto all social situations, and said all people are constantly in a battle with others.

The RAND think-tank asked the secretaries at the company to take to try and prove this hypothesis, but the results did not align with their perception of humanity. The secretaries were naturally compassionate (or, naive, based on the Game Theory mindset). RAND ignored the test results.

John Nash was soon after diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia and placed in a hospital. His theories were already the backbone of a lot of RAND’s concepts. They kept building on them.

CONSTRUCTING REALITY – How we became individuals

The RAND corporation saw people as completely individualistic, working for personal gain. Compassion was not a part of the equation. This hyper-individualistic perception of people was also a part of Bernayes’s advertising strategies. Selling to the desires of people makes them take on a ‘make yourself better than other people by buying our products’ attitude. Politicians and advertisers both began a construction of strategies to sell and to govern based on this perception of people. Believing this, they made it true.

Our perceptions of who and what we are changes with each societal moment, and this moment is as peculiar as any other. We are all living in the land of freedom, the land were you can pull yourself up from your own boot traps and buy that shiny new car. Anything counter to it becomes counter-culture, an offshoot. You can’t change a system by being outside of it; we are all stuck inside of it.

We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death (lyrics)

We cannot escape the structures. We can only use tactics to progress within these structures, and try to be aware.


  1. Tameka wrote:

    Hey Alex,

    Really thought provoking post. One very recent real life example that comes to mind of Panopticonic self-policing at work is the government shut-down of some 77 torents this weekend. Homeland Security literally siezed the torrent sites this past weekend, including at least one torrent search engine that wasn’t an actual torrent, in an effort to curb the distribution of pirated material as gifts. The actual shut down took place on none other than Black Friday. The very first thing I did when I read about it was text my cousin and tell her to get off Pirate Bay. I think the timing of the seizure was infinitely more far reaching than the seizure itself as all the torrent operators have to do is set up shop under a new URL. However the fear struck into the hearts of torrent users like myself and my friends, is long lasting. I think the timing says “WE ARE WATCHING!” in no uncertain terms. Even thouugh I personally have never downloaded anything copywrited, (and as far as I know neither has my cousin) I couldn’t help feeling as if I might get in trouble at any moment just by sheer association. So I’m a prisoner, who knew? Mom will be proud.

    Great post!

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  2. npluim wrote:

    Great post connecting concepts of Social Psychology with this weeks readings.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Sydnie wrote:

    This post makes me sick to my stomach in so many ways. I find it quite frightening that Nash was crazy yet his princples held up and are still used in public relations (don’t call it propaganda). I agree that people are complex individuals but it’s scary how simply we are controlled. It makes me wonder how lasting social change can occur if we are too busy buying into what we are told is important, not knowing for ourselfs what is really important. I think this is why i see cars being repo’d all the time with ’22 rims. It’s preceived to be important that your car is on ’22 rims not that your car be paid off and not in danger of being repo’d by the bank for non-payment.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Kknight wrote:

    Great post, Alex.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 4:10 am | Permalink