The Digital Panopticon

This post is part three of a series raising questions about the mass adoption of social technologies. Here are links to part one and two. These posts will be opened to live discussion in an upcoming webcast on May 27. (special guest to be announced shortly)

In 1785 utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed architectural plans for the Panopticon, a prison Bentham described as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Its method was a circular grid of surveillance; the jailors housed in a central tower being provided a 360-degree view of the imprisoned. Prisoners would not be able to tell when a jailor was actually watching or not. The premise ran that under the possibility of total surveillance (you could be being observed at any moment of the waking day) the prisoners would self-regulate their behavior to conform to prison norms. The perverse genius of the Panopticon was that even the jailor existed within this grid of surveillance; he could be viewed at any time (without knowing) by a still higher authority within the central tower – so the circle was complete, the surveillance – and thus conformance to authority – total.

In 1811 the King refused to authorize the sale of land for the purpose and Bentham was left frustrated in his vision to build the Panopticon. But the concept endured – not just as a literal architecture for controlling physical subjects (there are many Panopticons that now bear Bentham’s stamp) – but as a metaphor for understanding the function of power in modern times. French philosopher Michel Foucault dedicated a whole section of his book Discipline and Punish to the significance of the Panopticon. His take was essentially this: The same mechanism at work in the Panopticon – making subjects totally visible to authority – leads to those subjects internalizing the norms of power. In Foucault’s words “…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. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” In short, under the possibility of total surveillance the inmate becomes self regulating.

The social technologies we see in use today are fundamentally panoptical – the architecture of participation is inherently an architecture of surveillance.

In the age of social networks we find ourselves coming under a vast grid of surveillance – of permanent visibility. The routine self-reporting of what we are doing, reading, thinking via status updates makes our every action and location visible to the crowd. This visibility has a normative effect on behavior (in other words we conform our behavior and/or our speech about that behavior when we know we are being observed).

In many cases we are opting into automated reporting structures (Google Lattitude, Loopt etc.) that detail our location at any given point in time. We are doing this in exchange for small conveniences (finding local sushi more quickly, gaining “ambient intimacy”) without ever considering the bargain that we are striking. In short, we are creating the ultimate Panopticon – with our data centrally housed in the cloud (see previous post on the Captivity of the Commons) – our every movement, and up-to-the-minute status is a matter of public record. In the same way that networked communications move us from a one to many broadcast model to a many to many – so we are seeing the move to a many-to-many surveillance model. A global community of voyeurs ceaselessly confessing to “What are you doing? (Twitter) or “What’s on your mind? (Facebook)

Captivity of the Commons focused on the risks corporate ownership of personal data. This post is concerned with how, as individuals, we have grown comfortable giving our information away; how our sense of privacy is changing under the small conveniences that disclosure brings. How our identity changes as an effect of constant self-disclosure. Many previous comments have rightly noted that privacy is often cultural — if you don’t expect it – there is no such thing as an infringement. Yet it is important to reckon with the changes we see occurring around us and argue what kind of a culture we wish to create (or contribute to).

Jacques Ellul’s book, Propaganda, had a thesis that was at once startling and obvious: Propaganda’s end goal is not to change your mind at any one point in time – but to create a changeable mind. Thus when invoked at the necessary time – humans could be manipulated into action. In the U.S. this language was expressed by catchphrases like, “communism in our backyard,” “enemies of freedom” or the current manufactured hysteria about Obama as a “socialist”.

Similarly the significance of status updates and location based services may not lie in the individual disclosure but in the significance of a culture that has become accustomed to constant disclosure.

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  • personne

    Very interesting topic. It is critical to be able to maintain anonymity and multiple personas to the level of not breaking major laws. To be able to take chances, make mistakes, without suddenly becoming a pariah on the entire network. But it all leads to access to information, “who’s watching the watchers” and retroactive enforcement questions that aren’t technological in nature. Until they’re solved the Internet is a wild frontier.

  • Self-regulation yes, but I think total disclosure also influence the norm. If everybody is open about even their trait that may be seens as outside the norm. Then we can think that the norm will evolve to accept those trait.

    I don’t think being totally honest and open about our activity is so negative. In fact if the supreme authority was in its turn always monitored by the prisoners the loop would be complete and not so bad. With today technology I think that a system where everyone looks at everyone like peers is within reach.

    The problem for me lies more with who controls the data. The efforts started by Attention Thrust were really the way to go imho. Everybody should have the complete control on their data and allow external services like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, … to access this data for the purpose of providing their service. But at a whim a user should be able to revoke the access to the data for any service provider.

  • There is a difference between surveillance and contribution. Social networks of conscious sharing, such as open-source development communities, call forth socially desirable behavior willingly.

    Other social networks, such as the collection and correlation of personal or anonymized search history, are inherently riskier, because they take place without our moment-to-moment awareness (even if we know of them in the abstract), and give away the power of control implicitly.

    I’m proud of what work I’ve contributed to such open-source projects as Subversion and GNU Emacs.

    I’d be angry at such invasiveness as Bentham’s Panopticon.

    I’m alarmed at the degree to which certain recent inventions have been allowed to resemble the latter, rather than the former.

  • A thought provoking piece, I have a general sense that normative effects of being observed will naturally decline. One will moderate less than one might currently be inclined to as a result of knowledge of being observed. We’ll learn, and become comfortable with a wider range of behaviour than we currently accept “in public”.

    I am quite curious about everyone having a more reified, and detailed history. Will we feel we must defend or honor the things we say today on comment threads 10 years hence when running for office? Fear of that may exert normative influence. Also, it makes one’s past far less plastic than it is for most people today. This could render our trajectories through life more rigid, our life’s course harder to change, which is already a problem for many.

    I’m not terribly worried about these things, but I find them fascinating, and I should clearly not have started this comment on an iPhone… :)

  • Privacy is eroding.
    More open + public data. Less behind walled gardens. Amen.

    Now if only we had decent Federal laws to protect the pejorative use of our data….

    Jamais Cascio jammed on a similar idea:

  • frankiecarl

    This complex issue points to the very idea of what it is to be human. The assumptions of place and time are difficult to account for because they shape our thoughts. You touched on this when you mentioned expectations and culture. The concept of privacy is always determined by culture,from Mongolian nomads and feral humans to New Yorkers and Hunter S. Thompson(just examples). I am not denying your point because I struggle with these ideas myself. Part of me believes that the whole basis of my concerns, which is grounded in the values of Western Civilization and U.S. culture, is one way and maybe not the best way, of being human. I love this country but like others, we are blinded by our ideologies and their historical success. I am well aware of the whole Big Brother idea and dread it. My point is that I just like to enjoy the amazing creativity and energy that is pushing this process. Its A.D.D. crack. I am fascinated because it reminds me of those mirror balls in clubs, every moment a new flash somewhere i.e. each day I read great stuff from blogs and sites like twitter. The work people are doing, in so many fields, is brilliant. If this process becomes corrupted by “evil” I think that the very same creativity and energy will defeat it.

  • Jason,

    What a great series of posts! I am intrigued by each of them as they come onto my screen. This one is especially interesting as I deal with it everyday here in Japan. The pressure to modify one’s behavior to an outside societal norm is extreme.

    Jean-Francois suggests that behavior out of the norm will come to be accepted. That may be the case some places, but it can be glacially slow- such that those trapped inside are bullied into behavior that is against their own ideals or nature. Michael Zielenziger describes this in his book Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation. The entire society is based on training/coercing/bullying everyone into “proper” behavior, with no one actually deciding what that might be. It is social engineering, with no engineer at the wheel and it may not last. I am not Japan bashing here, as I have lived here for almost 20 years, but I am concerned. My students have grabbed the book and passer it around. They believe it is accurate. They are having trouble fitting in and find the pressure so great that most go along, even though they see that the end result is not good. Most think everyone is going down together no matter what they do. They say, “Shoganai.” “Nothing can be done.”

    I think giving up is the worst result.

    A long digression, and forgive me, but this struck a note. I think Japan deserves a hard look – it is a mirror of one possible response to this everyone-sees-everyone-else deterioration of the American concept of personal privacy.

  • It’s funny what happens when you remind people that they are effectively in jail, isn’t it Josh?


  • Great topic. I’m so glad to see someone else interested in this. I did an research art project on the digital panopticon ten years ago at University of California, San Diego. If you’d like to see some images addressing the same issues you are discussing they are here:


  • rhesa j

    I have also heard that this generation exists in a culture where “there is no expectation of privacy, but an insistence on transparency” (via Bob Johansen IFTF I think). Translation: “I expect you to be watching, but I will insist on knowing the truth about why.” I get the point that a generation constantly watched may not have the wherewithal to overcome the tendency to conform, or, find the freedom to coalesce in a way that creates the power to insist on anything.

    However, I am most interested in the shift in topic, from one of overexposure, to an ending focused on propaganda. I think it is worth considering that what is shared inside the growing central cloud of data is not the personal but always the propaganda, such as “yes we can”, “yes she did.” or “no she didn’t.”

    Location awareness aside, if we see the social media platform as about propaganda in the poetic or Socratic sense, doesn’t the power-authority exist in the timelinessresilience of the ideas shared? Doesn’t this platform also make it possible for these compelling ideas to come from anywhere?

    p.s. like the great references included in the comments here…

  • Interesting, Josh. I considered the same model applied to social technology in September 2008 and came to the exact opposite conclusion. I believe the social nature of information sets workers free from organizations, rather than serving as ignorant self-imprisonment.

  • Transparency keeps people disciplined and honest. A practical example is Linked-In profiles. Because everyone knows that their current colleagues, former colleagues, current managers, past managers and friends can see their profile, the profile tends to be closer to reality compared to a private resume sent as part of a job application.


  • Isn’t the key feature of social media that it walls off a bit of the Internet just for me and my friends and followers? I only have to read things from people with whom I’m familiar. I only write for the crowd that gets my jokes. (That’s why 140 character is enough for most people. It’s not conversation, is reinforcement.)

    The Benthamite conformance has been part of on-line communities since the beginning. No new idea goes unflamed and there’s always a mechanism for ignoring an unruly mind.

    Maybe the opposite of social media is open media.

  • Juhan – that is a great post you linked to. I really recommend everyone read it.

    Jean-Francois, Preston and Paul Hays,
    You may be correct – that out of the ordinary behavior will come to be more acceptable. It seems an obvious conclusion which is why I apply a bit of skepticism to it. On the flip side there are clear studies that show how recommendation systems online increase individual sense of diversity (more choices) while decreasing overall choice pool(killing off lots of choices). In a similar way I have pondered whether living our lives online gives the individual feeling of empowerment/expression while leading to a decrease in the overall diversity of expression. As you can tell, this theory is not quite ready for prime time – but interesting.

    Peter Kim – I would love the link to your piece. Read my earlier posts for context – esp. The Evangelist Fallacy. I am not actually making conclusions in this piece but raising questions. As an evangelist of social media I would be very interested in what your questions and concerns are. The entire world seems content to stay with your analysis. People (you and I) make a living off of that analysis. It is for this reason alone that I wanted to probe some of the questions that I feel are legitimate. Conclusions are answers. On such a complex subject I am not comfortable giving out conclusions.

  • Mr Useless

    Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist makes a really good read in this context

    prisoners pass notes to each other – whisper down plugholes – publish magazines on toilet paper – fall in love with each other in solitary

  • Sparkyprune

    Yes, however there’s a massive point missing from this analysis- namely, that this kind of power works to produce the subject or individual, as well as containing it..

    Foucault outlines this best in History of Sexuality Volume 1- arguing against the theory that Victorian “repression” of sexuality kept our human, natural desires in check. It actually worked to produce a discourse around sexuality in which the subject could takes its place- i.e. it produced the individual as a subject of discourse.

    Power is not inherently evil. It is in fact always productive. It produces individuals though a given discourse. In this respect social media has enormous potential. What Foucault was doing, and what I think is the most important thing, was to trace the workings of power in order that we might be wary of how it works… and analyse just what effects it is working towards, in order to make moral judgements about issues in society. It’s a question of ethics more than anything.

  • @Sparkyprune, power is not inherently evil, but the societies in which power is exercised may be — with the consequence that power is used for evil. Looking at the historical record, we might say this is more often the case. We need more equitable, democratic, empowering — whatever — societies, but power is typically exercised to maintain existing social relations, because those who benefit from them have the greatest power. It’s an axiom.

    Great reiteration of the principle discussions that occurred when TV supplanted films, cable and video supplanted TV, and the Internet wrapped them all in a package, subsuming each and every one. J-M handled the conversation well. As is said, every generation needs to have its own revolution. It must might break the mold.

  • @Sparkyprune, power is not inherently evil, but the societies in which power is exercised may be — with the consequence that power is used for evil. Looking at the historical record, we might say this is more often the case. We need more equitable, democratic, empowering — whatever — societies, but power is typically exercised to maintain existing social relations, because those who benefit from them have the greatest power. It’s an axiom.

    Great reiteration of the principled discussions that occurred when TV supplanted films, cable and video supplanted TV, and the Internet wrapped them all in a package, subsuming each and every one. J-M handled the conversation well. As is said, every generation needs to have its own revolution. It must might break the mold.

  • Team SP

    isn’t it possible to use all the new modern technologies and tools and gather some solid hstory abt our cultures??