The Panopticum of the Digital Sphere

About a present form of  ‘natural surveillance’: Facebook

Introduction

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. [1] 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”. [2] 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”. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5]

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. [6] 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. [7] 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. [8] 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.

Conclusion

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)

Sources:

  • 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).

[1] Foucault, Michel. (1975) Discipline, Toezicht en Straf: de Geboorte van de Gevangenis. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2007.
[2] Foucault, Michel. (1975) Discipline, Toezicht en Straf: de Geboorte van de Gevangenis. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2007.
[3] Foucault, Michel. (1975) Discipline, Toezicht en Straf: de Geboorte van de Gevangenis. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2007: 201.
[4] Cascio, Jamais. (2005) ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticum’. http://www.worldchanging.com http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002651.html (May 28th, 2013).
[5] Foucault, Michel. (1975) Discipline, Toezicht en Straf: de Geboorte van de Gevangenis. Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2007: 270-313.
[6] Cascio, Jamais. (2005) ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticum’. http://www.worldchanging.com http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002651.html (May 28th, 2013).
[7] Lecture ‘Digital Art and Culture:  Privacy and Surveillance’, Martijn Stevens and Lianne Toussaint. (May 30th, 2013) Nijmegen: Algemene Cultuurwetenschappen (Cultural Studies).
[8] Lecture ‘Digital Art and Culture:  Privacy and Surveillance’, Martijn Stevens and Lianne Toussaint. (May 30th, 2013) Nijmegen: Algemene Cultuurwetenschappen (Cultural Studies).
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3 thoughts on “The Panopticum of the Digital Sphere

  1. Dear Jul,

    First of all I want to compliment you on this nice post. The comparison between the Panopticum and Facebook is an interesting one, although a bit easy. The structure of your essay is very clear, with a very distinct introduction and conclusion. On top of that, your way of explaining al large array of concepts is classy and clear for anyone to follow.

    Now I want to address some critical points concerning the formal aspects of your blog. As you surely know, it is too long. I know you have a knack for not caring too much about the word limit of your essays, but this one passes the limit not once, but twice.
    Your English is very good, and it is clear that you know what you are talking about. I did noticed two small spelling errors. In the first paragraph you write ‘characteric’ instead of ‘characteristic’. Also, in the penultimate paragraph you write ‘considered as’ as one word. ‘Centred’ should be ‘centered’. Mind those little and needless errors.
    At times, I get the feeling you make things harder for yourself than necessary. Sentences can be written down in a simpler way, more to the point. For instance, the benefit of the hyphen in the first paragraph is beyond me, and a sentence such as the following, is too woolly: ‘The characteristic design, the domed building with it’s centred 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.’ I think this sentence could have been trimmed down to three shorter sentences. It would make the essay more legible.
    One more note about the form: for clarity I would italicize Cascio’s citation.

    You write that Facebook is a medium ‘that can exist because of human desires for information – and more implicit: power.’ I find this a really interesting observation and wonder if it’s true. Maybe it is, it seems evident. You also write: ‘People’s desire of constantly wanting to be watched and checked, is a matter of self-affirmation.’ This is also very interesting. Isn’t there something paradoxical about this need? People go there for self-affirmation, but self-negation can just as easily be the result. Behind the desire to use Facebook (being watched, being under surveillance constantly) could be lying a very different desire than the desire for power. A Freudian analysis concerning these questions could be very interesting.

    Made by Jut.

  2. Jut! I have taken your comments, concerning spelling, in account. Perhaps I should substantiate my arguments better, but than my essay would have been not two essays long, but two days long! What I actually meant with people longing for information and self-affirmation, is that people are the ultimate narcistic species. When I see someone’s status saying “I quit college”, my first reaction is ahhh! My second reaction though is: “Hmm, you should have studied harder”. To me the failing of others gives me, in a sick way, the feeling of self-affirmation (“You quit because you didn’t study; I do study so I won’t quit because of that”). And I think people need this kind of information to feel better about theirselves, perhaps that is why Facebook is such a success. I’m interested in your Freudian analysis concerning this subject: maybe people like being watched at, and watching at others, because secretly we’re all exhibitionists and voyeurs… (Or, at least that is what Freud would imply, haha).

    Made by Jul.

  3. Jul, I like your honesty regarding your initial response when someone on Facebook announces a failure. I don’t know the frequency of such announcements, I always had the impression most people on Facebook hide their failures and mainly use it to depict their lives as much more interesting than they actually are. But this is only second-hand information.
    Why would someone want to be under surveillance all the time? And give other people the possibility to undermine what you post, not face to face, but safe behind their desk? Maybe there are some sadistic and masochistic urges at work here, unconsciously being gratified via Facebook…
    Jut.

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