Apr 19, 2010
This is a panopticon: a prison design conceived by Thomas Bentham. The architectural design is such that many individuals separated from one another by barriers can be viewed by a person in a central tower who may choose to stay anonymous. Michel Foucault mainly explores “panopticism” in the context of the carceral system, but says that it can be applied in multiple environments, including schools, hospitals, hospitals for the mentally ill, and work centers (p.303). At times, Michel Foucalt’s writing in “Panopticism” seems abstract and technical, but he puts forth valuable ideas regarding power, visibility, and surveillance that can be applied when examining the Internet.
Foucault asserts that the “major effect of the Panopticon” is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (303). This implies that what matters is not whether individuals are actually being watched, but that they knows that the possibility exists, and thus their freedom of action and expression is somehow suppressed. Another key point is that the “central power” is a source of power, independent of the qualities of its inhabitant.
I find it intriguing to apply the idea of “panopticism” to the Internet, especially after reading about how the anonymity of the web can be liberating. If we disregard hacking and surveillance of private material such as email, maybe we can think of the Internet as a Panopticon with open doors, where the central tower is accessible to anyone who desires it. A Facebook newsfeed is like a Panopticon in which users are simultaneously in a visible cell and in the anonymous viewing tower. The tower provides power because it is very informative, but this power if distributed relatively evenly.
Foucault writes that, “Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance” (306). Now, Foucault was writing in the 1970s, before the Internet took off. Raimo Blom reports on concerns regarding Internet surveillance. Governments with access to email accounts, electronic health records, and certain actions by the Department of Homeland Security have all provoked distrust among members of US society. That said, I would venture to say that the Internet has fostered a culture of exhibition, not just surveillance. Along with the desire to observe others is the desire to make one’s self seen by others. Isn’t that what blogs, Youtube, Twitter, and social networking sites are all about? (Yes, social network sites and Twitter are more selective who is allowed to observe, but I think display is still central to their functions.
Perhaps the Internet’s dual panopticism and exhibition are accepted by most users, but objection arises when an undesirable figure enters the “central tower”, such as a sexual predator or an authoritarian government. The other concern is that individuals in cells in the panopticon are oblivious or naive about their visibility, such as in the case of adolescents on social network sites.
Scholars at MIT did a study on disclosure of information on Facebook and users’ knowledge of privacy settings. One of the main findings was that Facebook users did not adequately restrict access to their profiles. Is this due to technical illiteracy, or is it a manifestation of our culture of display? The study also examined “third-party information”, which includes personal information that is displayed on other people’s profiles through wall posts or photo tags. I think that the disclosure of third-party information is especially relevant now that the “new Facebook” sets the Newsfeed as the first page the users see when they log in. Really, Facebook is a gossiper’s dream come true. We Facebook users periodically broadcast tidbits of our personal lives to hundreds of other people even when we only explicitly direct it towards one individual.
Some aspects of the article are now outdated. (It was published in 2005.) For example, Facebook no longer requires a school email address of its users. Also, my impression is that public awareness about privacy settings has improved, in part due to efforts on the part of Facebook.
I did not entirely understand some of the technical aspects of Facebook. I have heard of digital cookies many times, but I could not define what one is.
Among the patterns that the article presented were that Facebook users who are more active reveal more personal information, younger classes share more information, students disclose information that is wanted by advertisers, women “self-censor their Facebook data more than men do”, but men generally share less personal information.
I’m not sure how I feel about Facebook giving my information to advertisers. Right now on my profile, Facebook is trying to convince me to become a fan of Rainforest Alliance, Greenpeace student network, Truthout, all very worthy organizations I’m sure. As for the more commercial advertisements, I guess I’d like to think that those do not have an effect on me.