We are asked to read Foucault’s Panopticism and to comment on its relevance to theory of digital culture.
In this article, Fouceault reflects on Jeremy Benthan’s concept of the Panopticon – a Machiavellian architectural premise that enabled one person to supervise a multitude of others from a central tower, around which were a rayed a circle of backlit cells. From their position in the centre, and hidden by shutters, a supervisor can instantly check what every one of the prisoners is doing (for they are prisoners within the system, whether or not they are in fact incarcerated). Foucault points out that through the methodology of making the individual feel watched all the time, while the observer is hidden, the need to have real observers becomes optional as the prisoners become self-regulating. Although they realise they are not being observed 24/7, their concern that any single moment might be the one where the gaze falls squarely on them is enough to maintain order. In short, effective power ‘should be both visible and unverifiable’. (Bentham’s writings are not easy to find, and Foucault seems to have appropriated ownership of the idea of the Panopticon lately, but some of his letters can be found in the reference below for (Bentham,1996).
It is easy enough to think of ways that this concept is applied in the real world, quite apart from actual examples of Panoptic prisons around the world. (See the image above, which is from Cuba). In the UK, CCTV cameras monitor our every move, in cities at least. Numerous examples of police being able to trace the exact movements of persons of interest prove this. In British villages, towns and cities, we are subliminally aware that we may be being watched at any one time, and it is only in the countryside where we are free from observation. We British are world leaders in CCTV surveillance and there is concern in organisations such as the Information Commission as to its proliferation in both government agencies and on the personal level. (Weaver, 2015) Information is being stored in enormous quantities and big data techniques and superfast computing are allowing that data to be mined for all sort of activities which were never originally intended. While the mantra ’If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide’ is still very pervasive, and while public support for CCTV in public places remains overwhelming, new technologies are constantly pushing the boundaries. Big Brother’s power is increasing daily and we are blindly unaware of the downside. What if this information is used for negative purposes, such as theft, blackmail and stalking, or for larger scale population manipulation and control?
A specific example of organisations collecting data without making it clear what it will be used for is the current enthusiasm for Faceapp, an app that can realistically alter one’s features to make you look older, younger, male or female, and which to date has over 100 Million installers. While I admit I have used it myself, I am also aware that this information may be being used by companies behind the scenes to form a database of individuals at different times in their lives, leading to potential uses in photofitting, creating digital humans who don’t actually exist (Stewart, 2019) and also deep fake visualisations. These are where a person’s features are overlaid with those of someone else, so that one can quite literally put words in their mouths. In this example below, Trump and Obama have been given new words to say, courtesy of the Jimmy Fallon Show. (Parkin, 2019) We are now at a point in time where proving the truth of any visualisation on the Net is both highly necessary and very problematic, and where the general public can easily be manipulated via false stories which play to their fears and use confirmation bias to extend them.
Another aspect of panopticism which interests me personally are the mechanisms by which a process of surveillance and control begins and under whose auspices it functions. I am watching the current TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale, and wonder how Gilead came into being. We know that it was a consequence of catastrophic falls in fertility and that a program to ensure that fertile women had children was set up, but someone or some group of people must have taken command of the process. In the same way, who has command over the supervisor in the Panopticon, and who controls digital information? Is this assumption of control deliberately organised or does it occur organically? And is anyone actually in charge of the internet? We have been taught of think of the Net as the Wild West of human activities, lawless and unregulated, but even the Wild West had sheriffs. Unregulation means people can do whatever they want outside the system and the dark seamy side of human nature is allowed more or less free rein in the internet’s response to efforts of control through the Dark Web, albeit that it is not so easily accessible as the main Web.
Bentham, J.(1996) ‘Panopticon, or, the Inspection-House, & C.’ In: Muncie, J., McLaughlin, E. & Langan, M. (ed.) Criminological Perspectives: A Reader. London: Sage Publications. pp. 16-22.
Faceapp.com (2019) FaceApp – AI Face Editor (3.4.11) [Mobile application software].
Foucault, M. (2008). ‘Panopticism” from” Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ In: Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 2 (1) pp. 1-12.
Parkin, S. (2019) ‘Politicians fear this like fire: The rise of the deep fake and the threat to democracy.’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/ng-interactive/2019/jun/22/the-rise-of-the-deepfake-and-the-threat-to-democracy (Accessed on 3 August 2019)
Stewart, J. (2019) ‘This Website Uses AI Technology to Generate Faces That Aren’t Real.’ In: My Modern Met [online] At: https://mymodernmet.com/this-person-does-not-exist/ (Accessed on 3 August 2019)
Weaver, M (2015) ‘UK public must wake up to risks of CCTV, says surveillance commissioner.’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/06/tony-porter-surveillance-commissioner-risk-cctv-public-transparent (Accessed on 3 August 2019)