About a present form of ‘natural surveillance’: Facebook
In his 1975 book Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de la Prison Michel Foucault poses the idea of ‘natural surveillance’ through Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticum. He uses this superior architectonal masterpiece, with it’s characteristic design, as a conceptualization of power relations – between people.  The characteristic design, the domed building with it’s centered watchtower (completed with privacy glass), is in use of the building’s functionality; the most important feature of Bentham’s Panopticum, according to Foucault, is it’s ability to create confusion about surveillance amongst prisoners; since they can’t be sure whether or not they are being watched at the moment. The constant possibility of observation – the ‘unequal gaze’ between prisoner and guard – causes an “internalization of disciplinary individuality” and “a natural surveillance”.  Or, as Foucault said it: “[…] the major effect of the Panopticon [Gr.: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”.  Foucaults idea perhaps fits a new form of ‘natural surveillance’. One that is generated through social media or, even more great, the complete digital sphere. In this blog I pose the question whether or not Facebook can be seen as a present form of ‘natural surveillance’ – sousveillance or coveillance.
Cascio’s The Rise of the Participatory Panopticum
In 2005 Jamais Cascio wrote an article ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticum’, in which he poses a present form of Foucault and Bentham’s Panopticum. He says that – with the arrival of a digital ‘sphere’ – people are internalizing discipline in a different way: This won’t simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.  Cascio calls this new digital form of surveillance ‘the participatory Panopticum’. The original Panopticum creates an internalization of discipline, because of the power-relation between the guard (the viewer) and the prisoner (the viewed): the guard gets the power since he’s got the information about the prisoner. The prisoner, on the other hand, doesn’t know whether he’s being watched so he starts to internalize the ‘desired’ discourse. 
Differences between the Panopticum and ‘the participatory Panopticum’
‘The participatory Panopticum’ is equal to the original Panopticum, although there are a few small differences. The first difference, of course, is that the original Panopticum works in a practical or social realm – ‘the participatory Panopticum’ on the other hand functions in a digital sphere. The actual functioning of the participartory Panopticum’ is possible because of internet, phones, camera’s and other ‘gadgets’ – and more important portable versions of the aformentioned. Cascio gives the example of journalism – anyone who is in the possession of a ‘smartphone’, can be a writer, a photographer or even an interviewer.  The above-mentioned creates new forms of power-relations, since there’s not just a few people that have information, knowledge and, therefore, power. The information – and the power – is being spread over the people. The ability of people watching at each other is called coveillance.  A second difference between the two ‘Panoptica’ has also got to do with the power-relations. In the original Panopticum the prisoners aren’t capable of looking back at the guard – since they can’t see him through the privacy glass. In the present Panopticum people do have the ability to look back at the ‘guard’ (the other). The ability of looking at each other, or looking back at the guard, is called sousveillance.  This ability changes the power-relations, because power is again being spread over many people.
Theory in practise: the participatory Panopticum and Facebook
Now that we know this about the notion of the Panopticum, we can analyze the theory behind it in a casus. Therefore I use the example of Facebook. This social medium, that functions in a digital sphere, is an interesting example for demonstrating the Panopticum: on Facebook we share. Not just an object (I.e. I share my chocolatebar with you), but information. And since Facebook-members are aware of the fact that they’re being watched, they agree to participate in the world of virtual surveillance. The notion of sharing is important since the people with whom we share (the ‘friends’) become our guards. On the other hand they also become our prisoners, because they also share private information with you. The tools Facebook hands the user are also important in relation to the Panoptic view. When you think someone’s ‘personal share’ is worth a compliment, you like his or her post. When you don’t agree with someone’s ‘share’, you react on their post. People’s desire of constantly wanting to be watched and checked, is a matter of self-affirmation (wanting to hear that whatever you do, is considered as ‘good’), but it is also about creating a new self: you have the ability to upload a photoshopped foto of yourself, so that you look more beautiful. You also have the ability of updating your list of interests: perhaps you like reading – by putting some canonical literary works in your ‘wants to read list’, you can make yourself look more intellectual or intelligent.
To conclude: I think it is very interesting that we can still use the notion of the Panopticum today. The majority of the Facebook-users sees this social medium as a way of staying in touch with people, but as I have been trying to prove in this blog; Facebook is much more. Facebook is a medium that can exist because of human desires for information – and more implicit: power. Although the original idea of the Panopticum and the internalization of discipline isn’t really applicable on Facebook anymore, the new ‘participatory Panopticum’ is. We actually choose to share personal information so that others can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ our behaviour; whether this happens through sharing posts, pictures or personal interests, Facebook helps its users to internalize the socially ‘desired’ discourse.
Made by Jul (Tess)
- Cascio, Jamais. (2005) ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticum’. http://www.worldchanging.com http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002651.html (May 28th, 2013).
- Foucault, Michel. (1975) Discipline, Toezicht en Straf: de Geboorte van de Gevangenis. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2007.
- Lecture ‘Digital Art and Culture: Privacy and Surveillance’, Martijn Stevens and Lianne Toussaint. (May 30th, 2013) Nijmegen: Algemene Cultuurwetenschappen (Cultural Studies).