Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Panoptic society


Michael Foucault developed the concept of Panopticism. Since his death, it has inevitably moved to Post-Panopticism like most philosophical concepts e.g. post-structuralism, post-modernism etc. There is plenty of text written on the terms, what they mean and more importantly what they mean in our society in the early 21st century.

Quickly, Panopticism is the ability of the elite to keep the peasants under control by surveillance. Post-Panopticism moves the debate to the self control we exert on ourselves. The impact these concepts have on our society is under appreciated.

I believe the 21st century has a new architecture for the Panopticon. No longer is there a central column that allows the elite to observe peasants. I believe the central column has fallen. We now live in open cells, watching each other like never before. There is no elite. No one can escape the gaze of the other or the self. We all carry camera/video phones, use social media, live under the cctvs, tabloid newspapers have emails/phones hacked, take photos from great distances.

The issue needs to be separated into different strands. Some actions are covert like email hacking, data farming from companies data records, some are overt like CCTV, social media. Where are we going to draw the line? When we know our information, our actions, movements, pictures are tracked, then it is not merely observation? When we don't it is spying.

The Panopticon is concerned with the observed. We are in view of the others in the Panopticon but so are they. Like the philosopher said. 'What is private?' We give up information on social media readily. If the information is out there, then should we be surprised that someone is gathering/observing that information?

The question is choice or lack of it. We are born into the Panoptic society. It is difficult to put up a curtain on our cell. We must sever that link to the modern world to escape the Panoptic society. Could you give up your credit/debit cards, electronic devices, transport? Therefore we must accept the cost of our post-modern world or leave it.

It may be a case that the 21st century will be remembered as the century Panopticism became prevalent, accepted and finally produced a political and possible violent reaction. The generation that is growing up with new technology doesn't have the wisdom of hindsight. In general people just see the good of communication technology.

It won't be until two, three or four generations have lived in a Panopticon society that they will yearn for the supposed freedoms of people in the pre-microchip era and try to do something about it. Maybe the last war of the 21st Century will be about those who want privacy and those who want to make privacy impossible.

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