Social Media and the Panopticon: Who is Watching You? Part 1: Are You an “Inmate”?

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In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen compares the social media experience to being in Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection House. (1) The term usually used is the Panopticon. You can view Bentham’s actual plans at this link.

In short, Bentham intended the Panopticon to be used to monitor large groups of people in institutions such as prisons, schools, hospitals, and factories. Bentham writes: “It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained.” (2)

The architecture of the Panopticon, therefore, creates an efficient method for all people within the institution to be constantly monitored by an inspector. (Recall, Bentham’s plan was formulated and implemented to some extent in the days before video surveillance.) Bentham’s idea was that the “cells” (or rooms) should be arranged in a circle with a tower in the center, where the inspector could at any time monitor the movements and actions of each of the inmates (or patients, students, what have you).

As Michel Foucault later writes, the individual cells (or rooms) in the Panopticon become places of performance. He states, “They are like so many cages, so many theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.” (3)

It is likely this idea that Keen picks up on when he compares social media to the Panopticon, and in fact, he quotes part of this passage (p. 20). He has a point. In a way, social media provides a platform where the individual person, alone with his or her phone or computer, performs acts that are “on display” for others. Indeed, the idea of social media participation as a performance has interested some researchers. (3)

Yet, Keen seems to overlook some important differences between the Panopticon and social media. As Foucault asserts, the Panopticon establishes and maintains a power differential between the individual and the ones “in charge.” He writes, “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to ca cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

This is not the situation in social media. Online,  participants can see the behavior of “his companions” (more on this in the next post); moreover, they are participants by choice. In the inspection-houses Bentham writes about, people are unwilling residents – prisoners, inmates, hospital patients – or else they are there through a tough–choice reciprocal agreement, in which they are giving up some of their privacy in order to receive something valuable in return. Students may allow themselves to be monitored for an education; factory workers for a salary. Even then, there is a level of choice involved. In social networking sites, however, participation is entirely by choice. Nobody is required to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media platform. And while we may argue there is an expectation of reciprocity or reward (“likes,” social connection, even glory), the activity is still voluntary.

This is not the situation in social media. Not only can participants can see the behavior of “his companions” (more on this later) but they are participants by choice. In the inspection-houses Bentham writes about, people are unwilling residents – prisoners, hospital patients – or else they are there through a reciprocal agreement, in which they are giving up some of their privacy in order to receive something in return. Students may allow themselves to be monitored for an education; factory workers for a salary. Even then, there is a level of choice involved. In social networking sites, however, participation is entirely by choice. And while we may argue there is an expectation of reward (“likes,” social connection, even glory), the activity is still voluntary.

Additionally, while participants in social media are indeed objects of information, as Keen explains well, they are also subjects of communication. Unlike the residents of the Panopticon, people posting on social media do have voices and can challenge the “inspector” in varying degrees of success. In this regard, social media is more like a public forum where varying opinions are presented and discussed. (5) In fact, it is the subjective and public nature of the communication online that makes it a valuable commodity.

Next up: More on seeing one’s companions, the power structure of being seen, and the work of the social media participant

 

Notes

  1. Keen, Andrew. Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon: Or the Inspection-House. Reproduced online at http://www.ics.uci.edu/~djp3/classes/2012_01_INF241/papers/PANOPTICON.pdf
  3. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.
  4. Some examples include:Zhao, Xuan, et al. “The many faces of Facebook: Experiencing social media as performance, exhibition, and personal archive.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2013.

    Papacharissi, Zizi. “Without you, I’m nothing: Performances of the self on Twitter.” International journal of communication 6 (2012): 18.

    Walther, Joseph B. “Group and interpersonal effects in international computer‐mediated collaboration.” Human Communication Research 23.3 (1997): 342-369.

  5. Television is a better comparison. SeeNewcomb, Horace and Paul M. Hirsch. 1983. “TV as a Cultural Forum.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 8, no. 3: 45-55.

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