Getting away from it all at the Disky Hilton: Panopticon in Practice

Francesca Wodtke

The hotel was a pyramid-like structure filling the center of the dome. Cobb and Sta-Hi were relieved to find only humans in the lobby. Tourists, businessmen, drifters.
Sta-Hi looked around for a reception desk, but could spot none. Just as he was wondering who he might approach, a voice spoke in his ear.
"Welcome to the Disky Hilton, Mr. DeMentis. I have a wonderful room for you and your grandfather on the fifth floor."
"Who was that?" Cobb demanded, turning his big shaggy head sharply.
"I am DEX, the disky Hilton." The hotel itself was a single huge bopper. Somehow it could point-send its voice to any spot at all . . . indeed it could carry on a different conversation with every guest at once.
The ethereal little voice led Cobb and Sta-Hi to an elevator and up to their room. There was no question of privacy. After heartily drinking a few glasses of water from the carafe, Cobb finally called to Sta-Hi,
"Long trip, eh Dennis?"
"Sure was, Gramps. What all do you think we should do tomorrow?"
"Waaal, I think I'll still be too tuckered out for them big dust-slides. Maybe we should just mosey on over to that museum those robots built."
The hotel cleared its throat before talking, so as not to startle them.
"We have a bus leaving for the museum at oh-nine-hundred hours."
Cobb was scared to even look at Sta-Hi.

[Software, pp. 60-61]

At the Disky Hilton, the walls have ears. At the Disky Hilton, the elevator stops only at your floor regardless of what button you press. At the Disky Hilton doors open before you arrive at them. At the Disky Hilton, the shower temperature is monitored to just the degree that your body requires. At the Disky Hilton, your calls are answered before the phone rings. At the Disky Hilton, you don't need to remember your dreams because they've already been recorded. There's no need to work at the Disky Hilton. Your job is to sit back, relax and be monitored, be analyzed, be controlled. Sound like fun? Sounds like prison to me.

Astounding, isn't it?

I mean the society of surveillance that has been created.

Frightening, isn't it?

Of all the events taking place in Rucker's crazy worlds, it was those occurring within the creepy walls of the Disky Hilton that struck the cord of panic in my breast. Here, Rucker has created a modern-day panopticon within a society of surveillance. The spectacle of antiquity is long past, and what remains is a world of control and order. Obviously, Rucker's moon hotel is not the classic panopticon as Bentham viewed it—there's no central tower overlooking and (metaphorically) piercing the glassy cells of a hundred inmates—but the concepts behind the Hilton are nonetheless the same.

Every guest at the Hilton is under complete surveillance, and it is not too far off to imagine that each bedroom within the hotel as a cell visible to none but the supervisor. For that reason, guests must be on good behavior at all times: that is a consequence of the panopticon. It is not possible for the guests to tell, when they are being watched or analyzed: the computer system may spring into their times of privacy at any moment. In fact it's probably invading times of privacy at every moment. What's important here, is the fact that the computer cannot be viewed as a guard or a supervisor; rather it simply pops up when necessary, to give facts or information, contributing to conversations where it deems appropriate. Conversations take place between a minimum of three—ever  heard the expression which states that three's a crowd? Well, every group is a crowd at the Disky Hilton.

As Michel Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish (1975), "The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately." The Disky Hilton goes beyond the spatial. It's no longer a question of visibility, but rather one of electronic awareness. And the invisibility of the supervisor is a guarantee of order. Because, when is the computer going to chip in?

The major effect of the panopticon: "To induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" [D & P]. It doesn't take long for Sta-Hi and Cobb to realize that they are under surveillance, and it doesn't take them long to conform to the ideals and standards set by DEX.

Verifiable: "The inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon" [D & P]. Here, the walls of the hotel serve the purpose; indeed, more than just the walls, the whole structure in its entirety, from the taps in the bathroom to the main lobby.

Unverifiable: "The inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so" [D & P]. Actually, the inmates learn that DEX may enter into their thoughts at any moment, although they can never be really sure . . . Sure?

What could be a better panopticon than one which serves simultaneously as supervisor and prison? It doesn't take Sta-Hi long to realize that his every action was being "recorded, analyzed. His every breath, every bite is just another link to the boppers" [Software, p. 62]. And the consequence is claustrophobic and frightening. What could be a better prison that one which dons the appearance of space and luxury, but which, in reality encloses and entraps more than traditional dungeons in the basements of the most eerie European castles?

[To other discussions of Rudy Rucker's - Ware trilogy (Software, Wetware, and Freeware) by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]