Do we live in a digital Panopticon?

I was inspired to look into this topic after reading this post shared by Prof. Poehler.

The Panopticon, introduced by Jeremy Bentham in 1790, was a revolutionary prison whose design allowed a hidden guard to observe inmates without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being watched. The “constant” monitoring would positively shift behavior; because the prisoners were never certain when the guard was watching them, they would always obey the rules to be safe. Such an idea can be applied to any situation that requires monitoring or large data collection (schools, factories, etc.).

In my first post, I briefly discussed the idea of Digital Humanities being a product of a technologically progressive society. Over the last decade, we have adopted a culture of innovation and growth, forcing virtually every aspect of life to become integrated with technology. We have seen incredible advances involving digital humanities,and from a strictly scientific viewpoint, such progress is a positive aspect of our society. Especially with social media, humans have become extremely connected to one another. But we rarely examine the philosophical and psychological point of view of endless growth and connectivity. Is such oversharing infringing on our right to privacy? Should we be more concerned about what information we willingly and unknowingly leave online and how much can be seen by others?

The fundamental aspect of social media is information sharing. People carefully choose how to present themselves on social media, as everything that gets posted appears in front of an audience. With every status update, Snapchat, and Tweet, we unwittingly post content that conforms to an identity we project through our social media profiles because we want to appear a certain way to whoever may be watching.

Assuming the prisoners fear the consequences of divergent behavior, the Panopticon forces them to follow the rules at all times because of the possibility that they may be watched. That paranoia builds and the prisoner becomes conditioned to behave that way even when not being watched. Similarly, our content, placed on the internet for the world to see,  is constantly under surveillance. Who is the prisoner and who is the guard in this situation? We are all a bit of both, as we all judge each other based on what we post. We subconsciously craft our image to appeal to an unknown, widespread audience.

But what about information we don’t willingly share? There is overwhelming evidence that all our actions online are traceable. For example, companies use cookies and likes to deliver recommended products based on our interests. Every website and Google search is tracked. Our bank information and passwords are known by companies. Most smartphones equipped with a GPS, are able to track down our location. As long as we are surrounded by technology, we are never truly alone. In addition, with the recent NSA/Edward Snowden surveillance incident, it has come to our knowledge that  governments and corporations monitor a large amount of personal data. With improvements in big data, the reality is that massive amounts of information can be tracked. In addition, the Internet of Things, which refers to implementing sensors and data-collecting processors in everyday objects like lamps and toys, will get even more information about individuals without their notice. Society is constantly under surveillance, but this is a concept that often goes above our heads. It is hard to visualize the amount of data being collected and constantly observed, and in the moment of sharing content, we easily forget that every small character we post can and will be seen by a much larger audience we intend. I believe we should be more concerned by this. The idea that every email, status update, and purchase we make can be observed by the government and corporations, in the extremest case, is Big Brother-esque and seems like an invasion of privacy. The only way out is to completely renounce technology, but in a society practically run by innovation, that is almost impossible.

The Panopticon represents being watched by a larger, unknown power; in the wake of that larger entity, our actions subconsciously change with the knowledge that we are constantly being scrutinized. It could be positive change; this constant surveillance creates order, stability, and peace in a society. From constructing censuses to monitoring suspicious activity, this data collection acts to benefit the majority. On the flip side, constant surveillance, to a certain extent, reduces creativity and increases self-censorship. This is most seen through social media. Because we know that there is a possibility our content will be seen, we present it in the most societally acceptable way.

What should we take away from this? In general, we should be more cognizant of what we post online, how we as individuals react when we know others will be judging our work (or how , and to what extent larger entities can see our personal information without our consent. Also, we should try to make the most of the rare instances we have some moments of complete privacy.



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