International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005) 

Simveillance in Hyperreal Las Vegas

Nathan Radke 
(Department of Community and Liberal Studies, Sheridan College, Brampton, Ontario, Canada)


[Bentham's panopticon] is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. The ceremonies, the rituals, the marks by which the sovereign's surplus power was manifested are useless. There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference...The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.1

…the fantasy of Artificial Intelligence: the brain’s becoming a world, the world’s becoming a brain, so as to function without bodies, unfailing, automatized, inhuman.  Too intelligent, too super-efficient to be true. There is in fact no room for both natural and artificial intelligence. There is no room for both the world and its double.2

I. Introduction

            Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, as filtered through Michel Foucault, has dominated cultural studies analyses of surveillance since the 1970’s.  Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation has not played as major a role.  The interplay between the two has been largely ignored, except by William Bogard in his 1996 work The Simulation of Surveillance.  In this paper, Bogard’s and Baudrillard’s ideas are brought to the hypersurveilled, hypersimulated environment of the Las Vegas “Strip”.

            In the section titled “Simveillance”, I retrace the fictional nature of the panopticon, as visualized by Jeremy Bentham.  I briefly compare Foucault’s re-imagining of panoptic theory with Bentham’s original idea, and describe how Baudrillard answers Foucault’s concepts.  Then I examine the articulation between simulation and surveillance, and the implications that this articulation has for conventional ideas of time/space and the gaze.

            While the hyperreal nature of the Strip makes typical distinctions such as interior/exterior problematic, the hot desert sun is still able to assert its physical reality even in such a virtual environment.  For this reason, my experiences in and observations of Las Vegas are broken down into two sections – “Under the Sun” and “Away from the Sun”.  These two sections describe the nature of the subject/setting interaction that occurs on the Strip, and in the casinos.

            Finally, in the section titled “Simveillance in Las Vegas”, I illustrate how the hyperreal world of the Las Vegas strip renders the potentially volatile and dangerous subject immobile, sterile, predictable, and inert.  In the seemingly chaotic environment of a modern casino, where possibilities appear endless and unpredictable, the subject actually faces fewer possibilities and options than he would were he ten miles further south, in the barren desert.

II. Simveillance

            Considering the panoptic origins of modern surveillance discourse, it is surprising that simulation has not played a larger theoretical role.  In his works on the panopticon, Bentham noted the importance of appearance and spectacle over the temporal world.  The panopticon was to be part prison and part theatre; when visitors were present, the obscenely visible prisoners were to wear hideous masks that would symbolically represent the seriousness of their crimes.3  Bentham had an interest in inferential entities – beings whose existence could only be inferred by observing their effects, rather than through direct observation of their forms.4  He argued that “fictions” – such as devils, ghosts, imps, or the power of law – could have measurable effects on living subjects.5  The “dark spot” in the window that would replace the actual presence of a warden could be considered a third order simulation according to the hierarchy that Baudrillard created in his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation – it would disguise the absence of a basic reality.  The prisoners would not be subjected to daily violence and physical restraints from a real warden; they would instead be haunted by a fictional spectre.  To Bentham, the warden’s absence would be a far more effective tool than his presence, because of the limited nature of the perceivable (actual) entity versus the unlimited scope of the inferential (virtual) entity.6

            Michel Foucault gave the panoptic ideal an academic revitalization by devoting an entire chapter in Discipline & Punish: the Birth of the Prison to Bentham’s ideas.  Foucault used the structure of the panopticon to illustrate his own theories of discipline and power; to Foucault, the panopticon (with its transparent subjects easy targets for the production of knowledge) was a conduit for the flow of power, not a haunted theatre.  The ghost story in Foucault’s version is the possession of the inmates by the internalized disciplinary mechanism; this is not seen as a fiction, but as a real product of the exercise of power.

            In Forget Foucault, Baudrillard dismisses the notion of the transparent panoptic subject as a site of power production: “[Foucault’s panopticon is] a magistral but obsolete theory.  Such a theory of control by means of a gaze that objectifies, even when it is pulverized into micro-devices, is passé”.7  To Baudrillard, Foucault’s analysis of power was actually a post-mortem: “…if it is possible at last to talk with such definitive understanding about power… it is because at some point all this is here and now over with… what if Foucault spoke so well to us concerning power… only because power is dead?”8  By not recognizing the fictional nature of the panoptic structure – and of power itself – Foucault’s theory fails, albeit impressively.  Simulation must be addressed and confronted to fully understand modern surveillance.

            One of the main functions of surveillance machineries is to render the subject transparent – in order to see “what is on the other side of the surface”.9  Simulation technologies accomplish this by effectively destroying the surface.  Simulated surveillance (or simveillance) devices do not allow the observer to actually see the subject; instead, hyperreal worlds are created that correspond to the real world.  At the turn of the 20th century Henri Bergson argued for a distinction between virtual and actual worlds, claiming that the virtual could never attain equivalency with the actual:

Were all the photographs of a town, taken from all possible points of view, to go on indefinitely completing one another, they would never be equivalent to the solid town in which we walk about …a representation taken from a certain point of view …will always remain imperfect in comparison to the object of which a view has been taken.  …But the absolute, which is the object and not its representation, the original and not its translation, is perfect, by being perfectly what it is.10

However, at the turn of the 21st century, our technology produces hyperreal worlds of which Bergson would have been unable to conceive, and Baudrillard claims that it is no longer possible to even argue about equivalency:

Everything starts from impossible exchange. The uncertainty of the world lies in the fact that it has no equivalent anywhere; it cannot be exchanged for anything. The uncertainty of thought lies in the fact that it cannot be exchanged either for truth or for reality.  Is it thought which tips the world over into uncertainty, or the other way round? This in itself is part of the uncertainty. ...There is not enough room for both the world and for its double. So there can be no verifying the world. This is, indeed, why ‘reality’ is an imposture. . . Everything which sets out to exchange itself for something, runs up, in the end, against the Impossible Exchange Barrier. The most concerted, most subtle attempts to make the world meaningful in value terms, to endow it with meaning, come to grief on this impossible obstacle... the whole edifice of value is exchangeable for Nothing.11

It is impossible to get outside of the world, in order to see back in.  From an epistemological perspective, this makes it impossible to ever confirm the world, or establish any absolute objective meaning or value.  The hyperreal cannot verify the real by reducing it to and replacing it with a binary system of 0s and 1s.12  However, the effect of this transfer to the virtual is significant – which is a greater concern to the modern individual at the dawn of the 21st century, the state of their soul, or of their credit rating?  The soul, as a metaphysical idea, is impossible to quantify, and its price cannot be established.  It is inaccessible and impervious to interrogation or manipulation.  Not only that, but as we did nothing to earn our souls, we are in debt as soon as we exist (and it is a debt which we cannot repay).  The credit rating, on the other hand, is easily quantifiable and accessible.  Neither aspect of identity has any form, or reality, but the credit rating of an individual haunts that individual like a hyperreal spectre.

These hyperreal beings and realms become the focus of examination: “at its highest level, simulation is not about the problem of reality versus appearances anymore, but about the coincidence of actual and virtual worlds”.13  A straightforward example of this is the typical CCTV environment, in which the gaze of the observer is no longer trained upon the subject.  Instead, the camera lens is aimed at the subject, while the observer watches the television screen:

The mirror-stage has given way to the video-stage.  Nothing escapes this kind of image-recording, sound-recording, this immediate, simultaneous consciousness-recording, any more.  Living identity, the identity of the subject, implied the mirror, the element of reflection. . . We no longer have such good fortune.  What we get now isn’t really our own image, but an instantaneous recording in real time.  In real time, there isn’t even the distance of an image. . . The abolition of that distance condemns us to indefinite reproduction, to a kind of derisory immortality…14

A virtual world is created on the monitors that corresponds to the actual world.  However, because it is a simulated environment, the images in the monitors are far more malleable than their actual equivalents.  The virtual image may be frozen in place, zoomed in upon, fast-forwarded, rewound, or played in slow motion.15  In addition, the image is trapped in the medium (either analog or, more commonly, digital) until it is allowed to cease existing.  Conversely, the observer does not exist at all to the subject: “This makes it very difficult to ask for help through the agency of the camera – the camera leaves its object entirely as an object: passive, without any ability to influence the situation”.16

            The rise of computer simulation profiling and modelling technology has resulted in the implosion of surveillance space/time.  It is no longer accurate to say that the distance between the observer and the observed, or between the event and its scrutiny has been lessened, or even reduced to zero.  Profiling refers to the construction of simulated identities that can then be compared to actual identities, in order to predict the potential actions of the real subjects.  These simulations are used to replace actual knowledge and observed behaviour of the subject.  It is a sorting device, as it categorizes the individual according to race, class, age, sex, living situation, location, spending habits, etcetera.17  This tool is used to predict the physical manifestation of disease and disorders, as well as habits, routines, and criminal tendencies.  Profiling can be understood “not just as a technology of surveillance, but as a kind of surveillance in advance of surveillance, a technology of ‘observation before the fact’”.18  These simulated identities are not simply accurate or inaccurate when they are applied to individuals:

The profile neither fails nor succeeds… rather, however it’s drawn, it guarantees or serves up an offender for surveillance.  Such high-order surveillance technologies speed the sorting and analysis of information. …They are, in effect, a form of identification prior to identification…19

The offence committed by the subject is his or her similarity to the simulated profile; since the profile will have been guilty of the offence.  Like Gandy’s panoptic sort,20 the profile is a predictive technology.  However, the panoptic sort categorizes people by their actions, while profiling categorizes people according to their resemblance to a simulation.  Once certain coincidental attributes have been observed, the simulation is superimposed on the subject, and the missing pieces of information are filled in.  In some cases, computers are used to automatically compare subjects to virtual profiles, bypassing the need for visual observation.21

            Computer modelling takes the same concept of predictive simulation, and applies it to events, rather than individuals.  By using models, generals may fight entire virtual battles ahead of time, in order to ascertain the outcome.  It is no longer necessary to wait until a battle is over to weigh one’s losses and gains; instead, the post-battle surveillance will have been done hundreds of times before the first shot has been fired:

By virtue of having been anticipated in all its details and exhausted by all the scenarios, this war ends up resembling the hero of Italien des Roses… who hesitates to dive from the top of a building for an hour and a half, before a crowd at first hanging on his movements, then disappointed and overcome by the suspense… It is as though it has taken place ten times already: why would we want it to take place again. …Is there still a chance that something which has been meticulously programmed will occur?  Does a truth which has been meticulously demonstrated still have a chance of being true?22

The success of the model does not depend on its resemblance to the event; the success of the event depends on its resemblance to the model. 

            Modelling, like profiling, is a predictive technology whereby a virtual, hyperreal world is created, and this hyperreal world then becomes the focus of surveillance.  However, unlike the virtual worlds created by the lens of the camera, the profile and the model are coincidental to the real but in an anticipatory fashion.  An ideal model will describe not the way in which an event is happening, or will happen, but the way in which an event will have happened.  After the model is developed and perfected, all that is needed is to wait for the real event to imitate what has already taken place in the virtual world; the outcome is no longer in doubt.  With profiling and modelling, surveillance is not instantaneous – instead, it precedes the actual event.

            Simveillance technologies also serve to sterilize the subject and the subject’s environment.  There is no danger of infection or contamination of any kind, nor is there the possibility of odour, or physical contact.  The digital apparition will only age if programmed to do so: “sterility can mean the simulation of decay…because simulation, after all, like surveillance, aims for the real, and that can be anything, even what corrupts it”.23  Even when this is done, it can just as easily be undone; there is only simulated deterioration and atrophy in hyperreality.

            While many authors have commented on the role of human/machine interaction in surveillance, Bogard takes this a step further by examining the figure of the cyborg.  In 1988, Shoshanna Zuboff wrote about the surveillance difference that was apparent between computerized workplaces and non-computerized workplaces.  However, there was still a separation of human and machine – the workers were merely using the technology.  The concept of the cyborg – “The melding of the organic and the mechanic, or the engineering of a union between separate organic systems”24 – allows a greater understanding of the unique way in which simulation enhances surveillance. 

            Focussing on the workplace, Bogard examines how the proliferation of cyborg labour intensifies the capabilities of surveillance.  Firstly, cyborg labour destroys the idea of the particular workspace:

. . .cyborg work spans all levels and sectors of the post-industrial economy and obeys no class distinctions or hierarchical divisions between manual and mental labour; blue-collar or white-collar occupations; staff or line… Any kind of labour, i.e., potentially can be simulated, can be mediated by some form of biotelematic, simulation apparatus… this is also… what increasingly causes contemporary work to shade off into areas that formerly were considered to be exterior or separate from work. …as computerization and communication technologies transform the office or factory into an any-space-or any-time-whatever…25

The modern business person – complete with cellular phone, pager, portable computer, etcetera – is never truly away from the office, as their physical office has been replaced and superseded by a virtual telecommunications system; the cyborg is its own office.  Formally unproductive times, such as travel, are made productive when the cyborg worker remains “plugged in.”  At the same time, actual travel becomes less necessary as it is replaced by virtual meetings, teleconferencing, and instant images.  Virtual movement replaces actual movement, and the cyborg worker becomes a stationary figure, moving through simulated spaces and interacting with other cyborg entities.

            It is not that the subject is prevented from moving.  The virtual does not place physical restrictions on movement.  Instead, movement is annihilated by being robbed of its necessity, and therefore, its meaning.  Baudrillard argues that this extermination is a perfect crime, with no motive or perpetrator: “. . .to exterminate means to deprive something of its own end, to deprive it of its term. . . This is the crime: we attain a perfection in the sense of a total accomplishment, and that totalization is an end. There is no longer any destination anywhere…”26  Movement is not inhibited, but it is rendered absurd:

So it is both a crime against the real world, which becomes a useless function, but, more deeply, more radically, it is a crime against the illusion of the world, that is to say, against its radical uncertainty, its dualism, its antagonism – everything which underlies the existence of destiny, conflict, and death.  …we might be said to end up with a world that is unified, homogenized, totally verified, as it were, and hence, as I see it, exterminated.27

Nothing is so absurd as that which has no reason to exist.  And in this way, movement (and all the danger, uncertainty, possibilities, and ambiguity that comes with movement) is murdered.

            The cyborg creates its own surveillance by virtue of its dependence on information technology.  It is no longer necessary to record the actions of workers; the cyborg worker creates its own real-time documentation through its very operation:

Filing an order, confirming a reservation, programming a task: any work accomplished via data entry leaves a trail, automatically.  More, any work whose tasks can themselves be broken down and transformed into functions of coded instructions is surveilled even before it begins.28

Production and observation are no longer separate forces in the cyborgian world; often, producing the observable information is the sole function of the cyborg worker.  The data is what is produced by the cyborg, and what is monitored by the cyborg’s supervisors.  The simulated labour of the cyborg is surveillance.

            While simulation has become a powerful ally of surveillance, it has a longer history as the adversary of surveillance.  Surveillance serves to unmask appearances, while simulation can mask, pervert, disguise, hide, and distract.  This can be done on a vast scale – building a simulated town over a World War II fighter plane factory – or on an insignificant scale – a student feigns interest in a lecture, even going to the lengths of scribbling in a notebook to simulate note-taking.  In particular, Bogard writes of simulation countering workplace surveillance:

Working people, in fact, have always known how to reverse the poles of the control of labour using simulation.  In France, they call this la perruque, “the wig”, all those ingenious ways workers have devised to trick their employers or supervisors into thinking they are working, or that make their work less burdensome.29

Modern day examples of la perruque include reading personal email, viewing internet pornography or browsing online book stores, making phone calls, or in the case of the student, simply removing one’s brain from performing the required task while allowing one’s body to pantomime the correct behaviour.  While the simulated cyborg worker has temporality stolen from it, the simulator of la perruque steals time back for his or her own use.  However, there is an important difference between the wig and simple slacking.  Slacking involves an attempt to hide oneself from surveillance, so that one may cease work completely, or go at a slow pace.  La perruque is performed in full view of supervisors, and does not represent a less strenuous alternative to work: “The wig demands an equivalent, and perhaps even greater, investment of energy on the part of the worker (as a kind of supplement to his or her labour, that `accompanies’ production)”.30  Rather than hiding from surveillance, wig performers hide within surveillance, by simulating the image of the productive worker.

            The final relationship between surveillance and simulation is the replacement of the first by the second.  Bogard does not go into this at length, but does provide an example:

Driving… toward Laramie, Wyoming, you pass through the little town of Centennial. …you are oblivious to how fast you’re driving.  Just at the end of town, you spot a patrol car at the side of the road by the café. …You’ve certainly been spotted, probably scanned with a radar gun.  You start to pull over.  But as you get closer, you notice that no one is sitting in the car, that in fact it’s not a patrol car at all, just an old junker painted black and white, topped with some fake flashers…31

Here, there is no surveillance, only the simulation.  However, Bogard’s example is not completely satisfactory.  The painted junker represents a cheap forgery, or a trick, rather than the replacement of an actual process by a virtual one.  The appearance is shattered before the driver has even completely pulled over.

            In order to observe simveillance in action, one must travel to an area overtly rich in both simulation and surveillance.  The Strip casinos in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada meet these criteria more than adequately.  The intense level of simveillance that takes place these easily accessible environments transforms subtle interactions into a palpable force.

III. The Las Vegas Strip: Under the Sun

Nowhere else does there exist such a stunning fusion of a radical lack of culture and natural beauty, of the wonder of nature and the absolute simulacrum... You have only to see Las Vegas, sublime Las Vegas, rise from the desert in its entirety at nightfall bathed in phosphorescent lights, and return to the desert when the sun rises, after exhausting its intense, superficial energy all night long, still more intense in the light of dawn, to understand the secret of the desert and the signs to be found there: a spellbinding discontinuity, an all-enveloping, intermittent radiation.32

            The exteriors of the Strip hotels display a dizzying pastiche of varying architectural styles.  Some of the casinos, such as Caesars Palace and the Excalibur, are designed to emulate a particular era in human history, although historical accuracy is dubious at best, and it would be more charitable to argue that the architecture is based on the Hollywood films based on historical eras.  Walking around the moats and drawbridges of Excalibur, for example, one is reminded of B-grade Robin Hood serials.  The faux-marble exterior of Caesars Palace does indeed make one feel as if he or she has been transported back in time, not to ancient Rome, but to the set of Ben Hur or one of the countless other toga-and-sword films that populate late-night television cable channels.

Jean Baudrillard. Las Vegas, “Returning to the desert at sunrise”, 1996.33

            Several newer casinos – notably Paris and the Venetian – are designed to emulate historical European cities, while still allowing American tourists to enjoy a European-free environment.  The Paris casino, which also features the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees, is straddled by a scaled-down version of the Eiffel tower.  The Venetian goes even further; it is designed to emulate almost on a 1:1 scale the Courtyard in Venice.  Painstaking measures have been taken to ensure accuracy, although there is no raw sewage floating down the canals of the Venetian in the desert.  Despite this, the Las Vegas Venetian’s canal water is no more suitable to drink; while Europe’s Venice canal water contains harmful bacteria and other organisms, the Venetian’s water is chlorinated to a sparkling sterility.

            The Venetian is not alone in its use of exterior water.  The Strip is littered with fountains, pools, artificial lakes, lagoons, waterfalls, springs, and geysers; the Strip air is noticeably more humid than the air four or five blocks away.  The Bellagio resort uses a water show as its main attraction; at night, millions of gallons are fired into the air via pressurised jets to the sounds of easy listening or classical music.  In the middle of a desert – an environment where water should be at a premium – water is everywhere, albeit undrinkable – a perfect crime against water.

            Just as the water is sterilized of undesirable organic contaminants, so too the Strip itself is free of undesirable organisms.  While penguins, flamingos, tigers, lions, sharks, dolphins and peacocks are plentiful, no desert wildlife intrudes onto the strip.  If one wishes to see indigenous flora and fauna, one must travel to the University of Nevada’s reptile zoo, or the Hershey chocolate factory’s cactus park, where desert life is separated, contained, and easily viewed in a comfortable environment reminiscent of Baudrillard’s encounter with the Biosphere project:

Nature – the natural world – is becoming residual, insignificant, an encumbrance, and we do not know how to dispose of it. . . The example of Biosphere 2 is an eloquent one: in the image of ideal synthesis it wishes to provide of our planet, in its character as experimental artefact, it is a way of transforming our environment into an archaic residue, to be tipped into the dustbins of natural history.34

Most Strip casinos sport tall palm trees, but they are not indigenous to Nevada.  The palm trees, while expensive, are important to reinforce Las Vegas’ image as a natural oasis.  The classic movie depiction of a natural oasis involves extensive palm tree coverage.

            The Las Vegas police also ensure that no undesirable organisms inhabit the Strip.  There are very few panhandlers or homeless people in the area, and those that do enter the area are quickly removed.  Even desirable organisms – such as tourists – are not allowed to freely wander the area haphazardly.  Las Vegas authorities are suspected to have a surprisingly lenient attitude toward drivers who run over pedestrians who are on the road, and tour guides ensure that visitors remain on the sidewalks for the most part.  However, even after he or she has been safely confined to the sidewalks, the tourist is still not allowed complete locational autonomy.  A series of outdoor escalators and moving walkways control the movements of the pedestrian.  Any one who steps onto a walkway in front of Caesars Palace, for example, will soon find herself inexorably drawn over a hundred feet through an archway and into the casino.

            There are also extensive measures taken to prevent the naturalization of the architecture via the process of urban decay.  The Venetian, for example, features aged chipped columns.  However, these recently-built columns were artificially chipped to seem old, and then frozen in time.  Any additional weathering is immediately corrected.  Things may look old, but they are not allowed to actually age.  Simulation helps the resorts accomplish this temporary victory over temporality.

            One of the classic Las Vegas images is of the waving cowboy billboard, beckoning gamers to enter the casinos.  When one walks down the strip, there appears to be constant movement coming from the casino architecture.  However, there have been steps taken to eradicate actual movement.  Actual movement requires the physical interaction of components; this interaction produces wear and decay, as the components move against each other.  The movement that comes from the architecture on the Strip is virtualized on enormous video screen hyper surfaces:  This allows the designers to display scenes in realistic detail that have nothing to do with the immediate surroundings, such as running a clip from a show that happened weeks before (or will happen days from now) or featuring a celebrity who is nowhere near the city (or is dead).  This virtualization also makes it far easier to drastically change the appearances of the outside of the casinos, since no construction is necessary.  The video screen allows for far more immediate control than the physical sign, and like the compact disc versus the vinyl record, the video screen provides a vivid simulation of an actual process without the requirement of physical interaction: 

Machines produce only machines. This is increasingly true as the virtual technologies develop. At a certain level of machination, of immersion in virtual machinery, there is no longer any man-machine distinction: the machine is on both sides of the interface. Perhaps you are indeed merely in the machine’s space now – the human being having become the virtual reality of the machine, its mirror operator. This has to do with the very essence of the screen. There is no “through” the screen the way there is a “through” the looking-glass or mirror. The dimensions of time itself merge there in “real time”. And, the characteristic of any virtual surface being first of all to be there, to be empty and thus capable of being filled with anything, it is left to you to enter in real time into interactivity with the void.35

The perfect crime against movement (and death, and therefore life) continues.

            There is no sense of physical deterioration on the strip; the accelerated pace of construction and destruction ensures this.  Wrecking balls and construction cranes populate the area in roughly equal numbers.  Each building is pristine, and there is surprisingly little garbage in the streets beside the prostitution advertisement brochures that are given away at every major intersection.

            Las Vegas gives off the impression of a vivid, wanton, untamed oasis surrounded by the barren South West desert.  This is an illusion.  While the desert actually flourishes with life, the Las Vegas Strip is sanitized, sterilized, and controlled.  Undesirable organisms are removed, and desirable ones are contained.  Even the physical laws of entropy are temporarily held in check through the eradication of actual movement.  Baudrillard argues: “In a hyper protected space the body loses all its defences;”36 the hyperprotected exterior space of the Las Vegas Strip renders the subject vulnerable to the frenzy of seductive simveillance that occupies the interiors of the Las Vegas casinos.

IV. The Las Vegas Strip: Away from the Sun

            There are significant differences in surveillance properties between the older Strip casinos and the newer ones, and these differences help illustrate the impact that simulation has had on surveillance.  When one is inside the few older Strip casinos, it is apparent that sight lines dictated the architecture.  The newer casinos have freed themselves from the shackles of unsimulated observation, and as a result have a radically different look.

            Even before one enters the Riviera casino, it is obvious that it is an older building.  From the outside, it resembles a casino, rather than a castle or pyramid.  The movement on the walls is an illusion created by sequential lights, rather than by a hyper surface video screen.  Once inside, it is even more obvious.  The ceilings are very low – less than 14 feet from the floor.  It is easy to tell where the overhead catwalks are; they are the areas surrounded by mirrors.  Refraction is employed to compensate for any poor sight lines, since it is difficult to identify a face from directly overhead.  The Riviera has been updated over the years with newer surveillance technologies in the forms of cameras and infocard-capable slot machines, but these devices have been added on to, rather than designed into, the building.  Judging by the relatively small numbers of camera pods in the casino, the surveillance at the Riviera is still very much reliant on the catwalk, and on the pit bosses who continuously prowl the floor beside the gaming tables.

            There is a dramatic difference when one steps into a later model casino such as Bally’s.  The floor which is much larger still resembles a casino, but the ceilings are higher, and there are fewer mirrors. The most obvious change is the increase in the camera pod population; they cover the ceiling above the gaming tables and slot machines.  They are not spread out in a uniform pattern, there are some areas with four or five within a few feet of each other, while other areas will only have one pod covering the same footage.  This uneven placement makes the bulbous black camera pods look like a pox infecting the casino ceiling.  While there are fewer eyes watching the Bally’s casino floor than there are watching the Casino Royale, there are hundreds more lenses automatically scanning and recording a coincidental virtual world.  Surveillance officers in the control room each have dozens of video camera prostheses; while the binocular-eyed Casino Royale officer loses his or her peripheral vision by focussing on one small area, the Bally’s officer has the advantage of the insect-like compound eye of the video screen wall.  While the Casino Royale observers retain physical imminence with their subjects, the Bally’s observation room may be positioned anywhere in the casino, and in some cases, an officer may be watching a direct feed on a laptop computer while not even being inside the casino walls.  Because of the virtualization of surveillance, a larger area may be watched by fewer people in the modern casino, which is one of the key aims of the panopticon.  Despite this, Bally’s shares no physical characteristics with the classic panopticon model. 

            It could be argued that the casino floor is divided into individual cells in which subjects are contained and rendered incapable of free movement.  These cells are actually smaller than the ones in Bentham’s plans, as they only comprise the subject’s chair, and a slot machine or section of card table.  No physical barrier exists to prevent someone from leaving their casino cell, although many people attach their frequent player ID cards to themselves with a cord, making it seem as if they are running an IV from their slot machine when they plug themselves in.  But while there are no cell walls, there is still a powerful attraction that keeps people in their seats for long periods of time.  According to Las Vegas lore, when the MGM Grand Hotel burned down on November 21, 1980, charred corpses were found still sitting at their slot machines.37  However, this is not the obvious and involuntary confinement of the panopticon, but is instead the seduction of the illusion of possibilities the spinning reels create and the siren call of hopeful noises that the slot machines produce twenty-four hours a day.  It is not the surveillance mechanism that is internalized by the casino gamer, but the shackles, chains, and walls. 

            The panoptic model is an even less apt description of the new class of city simulacra casinos.  Baudrillard’s argument that the simulation device has rendered Foucault’s theories of transparency and power obsolete seems prophetic as soon as one enters the hypersimulated environment; Baudrillard’s theories of simulation cast illumination on the cacophonous scenario that unfolds before the visitor.  Indeed, it is impossible to come to terms with these locations without a firm grounding in simulation theory.

While Bally’s still resembles a casino, the interior of the nearby Paris casino has been made to resemble an outdoor French market.  The ceiling is more than 40 feet high, and is painted and textured to feign a beautiful sunny day, complete with fluffy white clouds that appear to move when one walks underneath.  There are no long banks of mirrors anywhere; they would obviously shatter the illusion.  Nor is there a pox of cameras dotting the afternoon sky.  At first, it appears that the casino-wide outdoor simulation has hampered the surveillance of the area.  However, upon closer inspection, the familiar camera pods may be detected.  There are many lampposts in the slot machine areas, and each lamppost contains a little black pod, rather than a lantern.  The card tables sit underneath an elongated trellis, designed to feign outdoor garden architecture.  Hidden away in the trellis are dozens of pods, each concealing a vigilant camera.

            While in Bally’s casino no steps have been taken to make the camera pods obvious, in Paris they are virtually concealed.  This is in direct opposition to the panoptic model of visible but unverifiable surveillance.  In the Paris casino, all subjects are continuously being watched, scanned, recorded, and compared, but surreptitiously so.  The reason that the panopticon uses the illusion of constant vigilance is because of the physical problems such vigilance would have posed; Bentham argues that the fiction of observation is as potent as actual observation.  When simveillance makes constant vigilance possible, it is no longer necessary to reinforce the illusion of the fiction.

            The viewfinders and camera lenses are not all pointed at the tourists in Las Vegas; many of them are pointed away.  The modern tourist experiences the city through his or her personal technological filters.  The tour buses that pick people up at the airport feature closed camera monitors above the seats that broadcast in real time the same view that is visible by looking out the window.  For those passengers who are sitting a few rows away from the monitors, the windows suffice; for the passenger sitting directly behind a monitor, it is very difficult not to spend the trip staring at the small flickering television.  Even on foot, it is common to see a tourist walking through one of Las Vegas’ simulated landmarks while keeping his or her eyes fastened to the two-inch screen on a camcorder.  Presumably, once the tourist has returned home, he or she will be able to experience Las Vegas on his or her big screen television.  This relationship between the tourist and the tourist’s technology illustrates how difficult it becomes to separate the two:

The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather they form an integrated circuit with me. …All our relationships with networks and screens, whether willed or not, are of this order. Their structure is one of subordination, not of alienation – the structure of the integrated circuit. Man or machine? Impossible to tell. …Alienation of man by man is a thing of the past: now man is plunged into homeostasis by machines.38

Does the tourist bring his video camera on vacation?  Or does the camera bring its tourist? If the modern tourist is strapped for time, he would be well served by simply sending his camera along without him.  Or perhaps it is possible that we can no longer talk of the distinction between the two; perhaps the tourist is the camera – certainly his organic memories will be destroyed and replaced by the virtual memory captured by the videocassette or digital memory card.

            At the Forum Shops mall, the simulated video experience reaches a new level of obscenity.  There is a large circular saltwater fish aquarium in the centre of a court, which features dozens of brightly coloured ocean fish.  Benches surround the tank, so that people may observe the fish, but the benches face away from the tank.  Along the outside wall, giant video screens broadcast live feeds from cameras positioned inside the tank.  People sit with their backs resting on the tank, watching the digitalized fish swim across the hyper surfaces.  Some people stare into their own viewfinders at the televised fish, often as the actual fish is mere inches from the back of their heads. While this may seem extreme, it is not unusual.  The increase in availability and the decrease in price of video cameras has meant that the panoptic gaze does not flow unidirectionally through the lenses of a few controlling elites, but instead is directed both at and from the masses.  People are observing each other, and people are observing themselves by turning their lenses around to capture their own actions for later scrutiny.  The modern subject is beset by surveillance from all sides, and is immersed in an ocean of observation.  The gaze that is so important to Foucauldian surveillance theories is refracted and dispersed like a beam of light through a shattered prism of Baudrillardean transparency and obscenity:

The transpolitical is the transparency and obscenity of all structures in a destructured universe, the transparency and obscenity of change in a de-historicized universe, the transparency and obscenity of information in a universe emptied of event, the transparency and obscenity of space in a promiscuity of networks, transparency and obscenity of the social in the masses, of the political in terror of the body in obesity and genetic cloning... The end of the scene of the historical, the end of the scene of the political, the end of the scene of fantasy, the end of the scene of the body – the irruption of the obscene.  The end of the secret – the irruption of transparency.39


Foucault’s concepts of transparency appear woefully inadequate to describe the trans-obscenity of the Forum aquarium.  There is no cohesive narrative here, no unidirectional focus, and no hierarchy of knowledge-based power.  There is only the transparency – and there is nothing beyond it to see.

            In a similar way, classic panoptic theory seems unable to contain the explosion of simulation that has effaced the Las Vegas casinos in the last twenty years.  It is a theory very much based in the actual movement of physical bodies through existing structures, and as such it limits understanding of the increasingly virtualized environment in which the average North American finds him or herself.  Attention must be paid to the particular ways that simulation and surveillance are united.

V. Simveillance in Las Vegas

            A mobile and unpredictable subject is a dangerous subject, and a subject that will be the focus of surveillance.  In Las Vegas, simulation helps ensure that potentially dangerous subjects are rendered immobile and predictable.

            In an attempt to transform the city from a gambling area to a total entertainment area, Las Vegas features a number of rides.  One such ride is the “Race for Atlantis” ride, located in the Forum Shops mall.  The ride features an exciting and perilous underwater chase through ruins and buildings at breakneck speed.   However, the spectator moves very little.  Instead, he or she is relatively stationary while the very latest simulation technology fools his or her brain into believing movement is taking place.  The majority of the motion takes place on the 3D dome screen, not in the real world, but the impression of movement remains.

            As noted earlier, structural movement is virtualized to a great degree on the Las Vegas Strip.  The movement of the individual has similarly been virtualized.  Video game arcades are common, in part because children are not allowed on the casino floor and parents need a place to leave them for extended periods of time.  Many games featured in the arcade replace actual movement with virtual, resulting in a stationary subject.  As an example, consider downhill skiing.  There are many things that can go wrong when a person is downhill skiing.  They may get lost take the wrong trail, they may run into a tree or another skier, they may be on to the hill without paying, they may take their ski pole and stick it into the eye of another person; the list is almost endless.  It is also very difficult to observe someone who is skiing, because of the speed and the distances one travels.  Consider the downhill skiing simulation game that is popular in many Strip arcades (as an aside, the presence of simulacrum is so endemic to the Strip that the idea that someone would come to middle of the desert to experience Alpine skiing is not surprising).  The simulation skier straps into a set of immobile skis surrounded by video screens.  The equipment and the screens are hooked up to a computer that calculates the feedback the skier will receive.  It is no longer possible for the skier to lose his or her way; there are no ways other than those provided by the simulation.  Crashing into obstacles or other skiers is also no longer an issue, since there are no obstacles or other skiers actually present.  Anyone wishing to observe the simulation skier would find the task very easy, since the subject would simply be standing still, while the video screens and artificial paraphernalia provided the sensations of movement.  There could be no easier target for surveillance.  Again, we see the perfect crime against movement.  There is nothing preventing the user from moving in an organic way; however, any such original movements would have no effect on the simulation, and would therefore provide no feedback from the device.  There is no reason for the skier to attempt such movement, as it has no correspondence with the matrix; it is meaningless and futile, and is eliminated.  And so, in the quest for adventure and excitement, the user immobilizes himself into a state of sterile safety.  The very value of the experience (the thrill of possibilities, including the possibility of personal danger) is annihilated and replaced by an empty virtual interaction.

            While virtual motion rides and computerized arcade games are a significant part of the Strip, the single most important machine in Las Vegas is the slot machine.  The Las Vegas airport lobby is full of them, most grocery stores have a few by the front door, and the modern casino uses most of its floor space to feature them.  Part of the attraction is the simplicity; there are few rules to remember, and no human dealer or fellow players to concern oneself with.  Instead, one is able to simply sit, and watch the virtual reels spin.

            The original slot machines were mechanical devices.  Pulling on the handle physically activated clockwork-style gears within the machinery, which spun the reels.  These early machines were susceptible to manipulation.  Users could squeeze the handle of some machines a certain way when a cherry symbol hit the top left corner, and the machine would pay off more coins than it was designed to.  Or, on other machines, when a player won, they could lower the handle slightly, then pop it back to get the same payout without spinning the reels again.  Finally, a skilled user could work the handle in such a way that winning combinations would line up across the payline.40

            The modern slot machine is a computerized device with a random number generator controlling which combination the reels will hit with any given roll.  While walking around a casino floor, there are plenty of opportunities to look inside slot machines while they are being repaired or refilled, and they more resemble the interior of a personal computer than an analog clock.  Microchips and processor boards have replaced the gears; these microchips have no memory, so the idea of a “hot” machine is a gambler’s fallacy.  The movement of the handle has no direct relation with the spinning of the reels; in fact, it is rare to see someone pulling on the handle while they are using a modern slot machine.  Instead, the machines are furnished with a large push-button marked “SPIN”.  Gamers minimize their own movements by simply resting one hand on the button and pressing down with their fingertips, rather than having to move their entire arm to pull down on the handle.  By virtualizing the slot machines, the casino ensures that elderly players are able and willing to spend longer periods of time sitting at the slots.  This is a totally controlled virtual environment.

            By placing a virtual filter between the movements of the gamer and the movements of the reels, the slot machine designer reduces the influence the gamer has, and reduces his or her possibilities.  While the mechanical machines could have their handles popped, squeezed, or walked in order to give the gamer an advantage, no such manipulation will have any effect on the random number generator inside the virtual machine.  Gamers may still attempt to influence the machines through physical interaction, but these attempts are futile.  As a result, casino surveillance personnel no longer need to look for such behaviour.

            However, the modern slot machine is still vulnerable, because it must still dispense physical coins to the player.  Therefore, physical means may still be used to ensure the machine pays out more money than it was designed to do.  Devices called “monkeypaws” or “kickstands” can be inserted into the hole in the machine where the coins are dispensed to physically lift the coin counting mechanism in the slot machine, or a small flashing light may be inserted to blind the optical counter in a more advanced machine.  In either case, the device blinds the machine to the number of coins it is paying out, by attacking its vulnerable, physical component.41

            While slot machines are the most popular game in the casino, table games remain an attraction.  Every table game – be it cards, roulette, or craps – remains firmly in the physical realm.  In card games, the key variable is in the order and distribution of paper cards.  In roulette, it is the interaction of a metal ball with a moving container.  In craps, the player actually gets to touch and control the variable to an extent, as he or she throws the dice.  In each of these processes, there are many ways for the gamer to cheat.

            As an example, look at a game of blackjack.  A gamer may gain advantage by either counting cards in her head, or by employing a hidden computer to play a simultaneous virtual game.  There are other, less advanced ways for the gamer to cheat.  She may be able to switch cards with another gamer at the table, in order to build one strong hand out of two weak ones.  She may be able to distract the dealer into making a mistake while handing out winnings.  She may be in cahoots with the dealer, with a side plan worked out in advance.  Finally, she may simply grab someone else’s winnings off the table and run.

            A relatively new fixture in the casino is the virtual card game; these games take simulation to a further extent than do the computerized slot machine.  While the slot machines maintain the physical reels (to retain an aura of history and to allow the gamer the illusion of physicality) the virtual card game does away with all actual movement, in favour of the video screen.  The game sits in a computer terminal in front of a stool.  After the player chooses his game from the onscreen menu, a ghostly disembodied pair of hands deals out card images onto a virtual table.  The player touches the screen to draw or discard, and to set the amount he would like to bet.  The game unfolds in the same manner an actual game would, and seemingly by the same rules.

            However, while the game rules are the same, the virtualization allows the game to eradicate the rules of physicality.  Obviously, since the machine holds all monies inside itself until winnings are paid out, it is impossible for the gamer to snatch the winnings of others off the table and run.  For that matter, there are no others.  There is simply the cyborg gamer, interacting with the screen and the microchip.  It is similarly impossible for the gamer to cheat by sneaking a peak at the dealer’s cards; they do not even have a value until the end of the game when they are “turned over”.  While the backs of his/her cards appear on the screen, they are mere placeholders.  There is no other side.  In an actual game, once the cards are shuffled (albeit by a random number generating automatic shuffler) there is a sense of inevitability.  All cards must eventually show, and once a card has been played, it has been exhausted until the next deck is shuffled.  In the virtual game, the random number generator remains, but the cards are gone.  The difficulty in identifying card counters is therefore eliminated, not by removing the counter from the casino, but by removing the object of his count.  The virtual device reduces the gamer’s options, while maintaining the illusion of freedom and randomness.

            There is still a way for the cheating gamer to beat the simulated world of the modern casino.  It is not the way of the compact mirror, or the two-way radio, or the mental system.  Instead, it is the way of the virus:

. . . we face new illnesses, those illnesses which beset bodies overprotected by their artificial, medical, or computer-generated shield. . . desymbolized machine languages offer no more resistance to viral infection than do desymbolized bodies.42

The reality-deficient computer world is susceptible to attack from within by the virtual virus; while the roulette cheater must attempt to physically alter the game in some way, the virtual roulette cheater may, if he or she finds an entrance, alter the matrix of the machine while physically changing nothing.

VI. Conclusion – The Fourth Wall

            Las Vegas is a place of extremes, but as we know from Baudrillard43 it is from the extreme that we may learn about tendencies underlying our everyday world.  So what can be learned from the Strip?  The articulation between surveillance and simulation is complex and contrary.  Simulation is an enemy of surveillance, as camouflage is the enemy of reconnaissance.  Simulation technologies can enhance surveillance considerably, by dismantling the physical problems of line-of-sight and temporality.  Finally, simulation can replace surveillance, by immobilizing the subject in a virtual world of limited options and imagined freedoms.

            Conventional panoptic theories are unable to account for the simveilled object; physical structures and temporality are close to irrelevant in the virtualized hyperreal realm.  Foucault’s notions of power suffocate his theories, relegating them to historical notions rather than vital ones.  The simveilled object does not resemble the oppressed characters in the classical panoptic world of George Orwell’s 1984, who are forced against their will to expose themselves to the unblinking eye of the camera.  Instead, he more closely resembles Mildred Montag from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Montag willingly embraced the screen; she wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by four hypersurface walls, so that she herself could become a kind of simulation and complete the perfect crime against the real:

…a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes.  They mailed me my part this morning. …They write the script with one part missing.  It’s a new idea.  The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part.  When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. …It’s really fun.  It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed.44

Mildred’s life has been replaced by a virtual one.  There’s no need for actual social interaction, there’s no need for movement.  She knows her role in the pageant, and the virtual people are staring at her from the hypersurfaces, waiting for her to fulfil her part in the program.  But no one has taken her life from her; she willingly offered it up as a sacrifice.  And it seemed a very insignificant sacrifice, as well.

            Is this the fate of the modern subject?  To willingly sacrifice his life to the fourth wall of simulation, to take his own life while leaving a virtual remnant in its place?  To become a docile and stationary observer, rather than an active mobile participant?  The massive popularity of entertainment locations such as Las Vegas and Disneyland seems to indicate that this is a possibility.  People are fleeing the uncertain world for its simulated non-equivalent.

            There are obviously more aspects of this area which need to be investigated.  While this paper focussed on the surveilled subject in a simulated environment, the rapid rise of Internet use has resulted in the virtualization of the individual, as subjects create virtual identities to interact with other cyber-phantoms in non-existent locations.  Lawmakers have been experiencing great difficulty trying to legislate these non-areas, and the effect that the increasing use of cyberspace will have on theories of surveillance remains virtually boundless.

Nathan Radke teaches Philosophy at Sheridan College near Toronto, Canada and is the author of “Sartre & Peanuts” (an assessment of the comic strip as a serious existentialist text) in Philosophy Now 2004:


1 Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1995:202.

2 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:34.

3 Miran Bozovic. “Introduction” in Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. New York: Verso, 1995:5-6.

4 C. K. Ogden. Bentham’s Theory of Fictions.  London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company, 1932:7-8.

5 Ibid.:xi.

6 Miran Bozovic. “Introduction” in Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. New York: Verso, 1995:9-12.

7 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977). New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:16.

8 Ibid.:11.

9 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:34.

10 Henri Bergson. An Introduction to Metaphysics.  New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955: 22-23.

11 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:3-7.

12 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003:76.

13 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:35.

14 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:50.

15 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:84.

16 H. Koskela.  “’The Gaze without Eyes’. Video surveillance and the changing nature of urban space”.  Progress in Human Geography, Volume 24, Number 2, 2000:249.

17 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:27.

18 Ibid.:27.

19 Ibid.:28.

20 Oscar Gandy. The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993.

21 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:54-55. See also David Lyon. Surveillance After September 11. Cambridge: Polity, 2003.

22 Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War did not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995:35.

23 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:41.

24 C. Gray, H.Figueroa-Sarriera, and S. Mentor. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge, 1995:2.

25 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:105-106.

26 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003: 62.

27 Ibid.:62-63.

28 William Bogard.  The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996:114.

29 Ibid.:110.

30 Ibid.:111.

31 Ibid.:25.

32 Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:126-127.

33 Jean Baudrillard. Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999. In this image of a desert within a desert does the common octagonal object at lower left arest us with a plea? (Ed).

34 Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994:78.

35 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002: 178.

36 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:62.

37 Peter Earley. Super Casino: Inside the “new” Las Vegas.  New York: Bantam, 2001:140.

38 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency Of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:58.

39 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:25.

40 G. Lewis. Casino Surveillance: the Eye that Never Blinks.  Las Vegas: George L. Lewis Jr., 1996:50.

41 Ibid.

42 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:62-64.

43 See especially Ibid. Baudrillard opens the book with the remark: “Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt a delusional standpoint towards the world”.

44 Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451.  Bristol, England: Western Printing Services, 1955.




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)