See posts from previous course about Panopticism:
- Understanding Visual Culture – Project 4-3: Looking, Observation or Surveillance?
- Documentary – Exercise 4-1: Gaze and Control
This exercise asks that we read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘Panopticism’ and reflect on the relevance of his theory in regard to digital culture. Rereading the essay and reflecting on this question I was struck by two particular ideas that are relevant – that the metaphor that Panopticism as a system of surveillance and control relies on the citizen feeling that they have the potential to be constantly monitored by a controlling and invisible force (the prevalence and acceptance of CCTV would be a modern real world example) and, the concept that when citizens come to accept the inspecting gaze of constant surveillance they unconsciously begin to conform due to their participation in the ideology of their society:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself ; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 66)
While the idea of the Panopticon remains a fascinating metaphor for control and surveillance, I wonder how relevant it is to our twenty-first century reality. Take for example CCTV – a system of surveillance that seems both accepted and broadly unconventional today. I remember perhaps twenty years ago as systems of CCTV increased in use their placement led to a great deal of concern about how our privacy was at risk and the dangers of misuse. Today however, we broadly accept CCTV as a part of our lives without much consideration. This would appear to suggest that the purpose of these systems to provide a consequence to deviations from accepted behaviour has not had any affect. Or, does this mean that we have come to accept our almost constant monitoring in public areas as something benign and only a problem for anyone who may transgress? (The argument being that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.) Is behaviour and compliance unconsciously affected by the presence of a CCTV network that may or may not be constantly monitored or is this simply a false form of reassurance?
Mcmullan (2015) asks if the metaphor of the Panopticon is still relevant in the digital/internet age as surveillance and monitoring is not obvious in these systems: “state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no dead-eye lens staring at you every time you enter a URL.” Continuing, he argues that the key difference between the Panopticon and data surveillance is the physical sense of exposure in the face of authority:
“In the private space of my personal browsing I do not feel exposed – I do not feel that my body of data is under surveillance because I do not know where that body begins or ends. We live so much of our lives online, share so much data, but feel nowhere near as much attachment for our data as we do for our bodies. Without physical ownership and without an explicit sense of exposure I do not normalise my actions. If anything, the supposed anonymity of the internet means I do the opposite.” (McMullin, 2015)
The key difference between modern data surveillance and more conventional ideas about this is both the way we are unaware we are being watched and monitored and also complicit, albeit naively so. In ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, Shoshana Zuboff exposes the business model that underpins the digital world and aims to ultimately transform human behaviour:
“It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.
surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about is but not for us.” (Naughton, 2019)
Biddle, S. (2019) “A fundamentally illegitimate choice”: Shoshana Zuboff on the age of surveillance capitalism. The Intercept_. Available at: https://theintercept.com/2019/02/02/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism/ (accessed 29th August 2020)
Bridle, J. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff review – we are the pawns. The Guardian, 2nd February 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review (accessed 29th August 2020)
Foucault, M. (1997) Pantopticism. In pps. 61-71: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (Eds. ) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.
Green, D. (2005) On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/onfoucault (accessed 5th June 2018
McMullan, T. (2015) What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance? The Guardian, 23rd July 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham (accessed 29th August 2020)
Naughton, J. (2019) ‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. The Observer, 20th January 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook (accessed 29th August 2020)
Zuboff, S. (2019) The age if surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books.