Facebook is the new panopticon

Counterpunch argues that the Facebook phenomenon is pretty much Bentham’s panopticon made real:

Facebook has ushered in a revolution, and a failed one at that. It is much like the panopticon – ‘all-seeing’, that surveillance device the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered in the nineteenth century for penal reform. Zuckerman shares more with Bentham than he realises: a desire to improve the quotient of pleasure in society; a desire to maximise the network for the common good. As Bentham commences his study on penal reform, he calls his device the panopticon ‘or the inspection house’.

The author, Binoy Kampmark, a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge, UK, goes on:

In 1975, Michel Foucault added his gloss to Bentham’s Panopticon Notes. For Foucault, 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.’ The prison inmate ‘is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.’

There are subtle differences. Members of the networks have become inspectors, just as they have become prisoners. People do ‘communicate’ with each other. It is a brilliant seduction: to give the means of surveillance to everybody in order to legitimise it. We see but we are also seen (at stages). We relinquish ourselves to others, but have the luxury of indulging in everyone else’s surrender of secrecy.

Personally I don’t buy it. Sure there are surveillant qualities but it is largely voluntary. And it is not new. When I was a grad student in the 1980s, I had a little script running on the VM mainframe computer that allowed me to see when any of my friends logged on. then I would send them a little “IM,” often startling and disconcerting them.

Today, we are used to far more. What could Facebook tell you anyway? Facebook is really part of something larger, the surveillant society/mentality which believes in trading surveillance for security. That’s the real issue.

…adding that clearly someone else has thought about this way more deeply than I have:

19 Responses

  1. I wonder if this could be tied into the ideda of docile bodies – that facebook’s (and other such apps) great skill is in convincing people to surveill themselves and marketing is as something pleasurable, enabling, productive.

  2. Yes, I think you are right. One of the central points with the Panopticon according to Foucault is that it is asymmetrical. This is not true for Facebook and similar social networks. The same capacity to watch is given to everyone, thus it is symmetrical.

    You are also in a position where you can choose who has the ability to watch and follow your actions (by granting or not granting someone as a friend) even if you choose to participate.

    Also, Facebook, as far as i can see, doesn’t involve any obvious power relations, like that between guard and prisoner, the teacher and his pupil or a supervisor and his workers.

    • I believe that you are wrong in this respect. If for instance an an employer suspects union activity they may look upon your facebook profile to discover any union related material. According to the national labor relation board, internet use is not considered “concerted activity” thus is it not protected under the weingarten rights and it is appropriate grounds for legal firing of union organizers.

    • doesn’t the whole frat boy origin of a facebook — what we called a pig book when i went to college — of pictures of all the new students at harvard one could access to rate as hot or not — as well as the peer bullying of kids on FB — suggest a power relation to you? if not perhaps it should.

    • Fastforward 5 years, and we can see that, yes, police, the government, prospective or current employers, prospective lovers, jealous lovers, peers, marketing data analysts, ALL use facebook as a means of surveillance but we are not necessarily allowed to gaze back on many of the more powerful institutions that I’ve mentioned.

  3. “doesn’t involve any obvious power relations”

    Surely these could be developed over time though…

  4. One crucial difference between Facebook and the Panopticon is that Facebook gives its users control over what and how much information they want to share, including the ability to opt back out by deleting their entire account.

    I find it useful to dwell on the brouhaha that emerged a while back when Facebook added its news feed function. Facebook users felt that this feature was too intrusive, especially since they had no way to control what information showed up in the feed. I think this shows both that Facebook is not quite a Panopticon, and that Facebook users are sensitive to the ways in which Facebook might approach being a Panopticon.

    We will continue to struggle with what we hide from others and what we make visible (see Goffman), and new technologies certainly give rise to new dangers, but we should be careful with our analyses and resist jumping to conclusions.

  5. Drew, power relationships could indeed develop over time, but that is a progression anticipated by Foucault’s conceiving of the elements of power, one of which is relationships of communication. These may have as their cause and/or effect relationships of power but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a relationship of communication will become a relationship of power.

  6. What about the owner of facebook?
    Whoever that person/institution should have all the database.
    I think that person could act as master of panopticon.
    The surveillance is surely asymmetrical in this sense.

  7. I think Foucault would say that power relationships exist already…there’s no need to wait for them to develop, since all relationships are inherently relationships of power anyhow. As for deleting your account, that’s actually not totally up to you…you have to go through a lot of hoops to get it fully deleted…it’s Facebook’s property. The require your legal name, which links all info you post far beyond a social networking device. Power is given to boyfriends/girlfriends (harder to have an affair/one-night stand when your relationship info is posted), future employers, school administrations, and even the police. Recently at my college, police used Facebook to look at pictures of friends of an individual who had been caught smoking pot in the dorms. Two students had run, but they were identified and arrested by using the photos. Regardless of whether you think these are positive or negative uses of power, I think it’s undeniable that Facebook is shot through with individualizing, particular information which gives power to other people. No one needs to be in control of it.

  8. Alongwith the birth of my space and other digital avenues of communication, the subject of a modern man died. We are always under the radar of perpetual spectral omnipotence of the institutions that are controlled by either the corporatocrats or the Nation-state.

    Unfortunately, contemporary paranoia for high-tech and social networkings and so forth–people spending long hours in a virtual space, digital tribalism etc–has already eroded the human and thereby made us dehumanized human bodies that are hooked to or wired with digital gadets. This intervention on our bodies by those who hold power is soft, delicate, and subtle.

    As long as this saga continues, we shall face greater consequences in the future in that there is a vast difference between the virtual and the real. Hence, the real bodies that traverse the digital territory most of the time, ultimately, fail to function in real time and space. The gap between the real and the virtual, and the real body (flesh and bone) and the digital body and the affect of the latter upon the former (when the real body appears into trans-subjective realm in real time and place) has been overlooked by the digital immigrants.

  9. The beauty of the whole situation is that Facebook is a voluntary panopticon that many of us have chose to be a part of. it is a little scary to think that we chose to be watched, WILLINGLY!

  10. Also, FB alows users to introduce misinformation or represent themselves using “personas.” The subject represented using status updates, link-sharing or photo uploading need not actually be the author’s.

  11. That’s exactly true as Mitch says. You can’t fully ‘delete’ a Facebook account. Remember the email account and password by which you first signed on and a year down the line, you are still able to reactivate the said account.

    Facebook permanently holds and maintains all the information you gave it, in the first instance.

  12. facebook as panopticon?
    you don’t buy it?

    i have a facebook page (not for long) and tho i created it under an alias and never publised anything on it, somehow or other a company called SPOKEO.COM got hold of all my information and put it al (including my name and address and telephone number) on the internet!

    describing facebook as a panopticon is entirely appropriate given the fact that the US CIA was involved in its creation:


    Facebook’s first round of venture capital funding ($US500,000) came from former Paypal CEO Peter Thiel. Author of anti-multicultural tome ‘The Diversity Myth’, he is also on the board of radical conservative group VanguardPAC.

    The second round of funding into Facebook ($US12.7 million) came from venture capital firm Accel Partners. Its manager James Breyer was formerly chairman of the National Venture Capital Association, and served on the board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999. One of the company’s key areas of expertise are in “data mining technologies”.

    Facebook – the CIA conspiracy

    by Matt Greenop


  13. First off, Foucault wrote, “it seems to me that “power is ‘always already there’ and that no one is ever outside of it, there are no margins for those who break with the system to gambol in” (in Gordon, 141). The point of the panopticon is that individuals choose to enact self surveillance because they never know if anyone is watching or not. The power comes not from anyone actually watching, but the idea that there is a normalizing gaze that we submit to in behavior and practice because we want to be seen as normal: aka the disciplines in his book Discipline and Punish. Power is not enacted by force, but by our submission to a system of power leveraged throughout by an ensemble of actors and institutions (governmentality). By reporting ourselves on FB we submit ourselves to the normalizing gaze of those around us– whether they read our posts our not. You are missing the point about surveillance. It’s not whether we are being watched, but whether people construct their conduct based on whether they THINK they are being watched. Additionally, Foucault always argued that one must be free to submit to power, thus if we were forced to join FB it would cease to be a tool of surveillance in the Foucauldian sense. The fact that we voluntarily supply information and behave within this system as though we think someone is watching us, is the absolute idea of the panopticon. Foucauldian conceptions are scary because it the subject who chose to legitimize his own subjection. The fact that your refute FB as a panopticon on the grounds that you do would make Foucault laugh. You proved his point.

    • This is the most intelligent post within this blog. I think you hit it spot on and clearly have a better grasp on Foucault than anyone else posting within this comments section.

      What I find interesting is the notion of a “normalizing gaze.” Foucault’s disciplinary power seems to be necessitate an invisible functioning such that, as you say, individuals “never know if anyone is watching or not. The power comes not from anyone actually watching, but the idea that there is a normalizing gaze that we submit to in behavior and practice because we want to be seen as normal.” In this respect, it seems pretty clear (and is also somewhat widely recognized) that the relationship between the user and the programmer is one of disciplinary power. Insofar as the mechanism by which you create your profile is entirely homogenized and the categories and forms of representation are dictated and controlled by the Facebook programmers, Facebook has created a formalized, codified form of individual representation that every user implicitly consents to. Through that “normalized” conception of the individual, Facebook (and other websites like it) accumulate information about the individual (not always information explicitly given and produced by the individual, but also information about what web browser they use, where they’re logging in from, etc.). That information is then examined by the programmers via running it through a complex algorithmic web to determine what sort of content the user is exposed to – within their news feed, advertisements, etc. These algorithms homogeneously operate on every individual, subjecting the individual to a “normalized” gaze whereby individuals are differentiated from one another according to the programmer’s conception of a what an individual really is. Generalized typologies are produced, under which individuals are categorized and some sort of identity is imposed upon them. Due to its codified nature, and the interface wall between the user and the programmer, the user is forced to interact within Facebook according to the guidelines set by the programmer. One could go on for quite some time explicating this Panoptic relationship…

      However, what’s interesting, and I think overlooked by many (though touched on to a certain extent within this blog post/comments), is the Foucauldian relationship between users. Too much is made of the user-programmer relationship and nothing new and interesting is being said with respect with Foucault’s disciplinary power. The user-user relationship is, as some mentioned in previous comments, sort of a diffused panopticon. Every user knows that their information is being shared with other users. And, in fact, users post to their Facebook in order to share that information with other users. However, the normalizing gaze between users doesn’t function in the same way that the normalizing gaze from the programmer onto the user functions. The normalizing gaze between users is derived from the individual self. Users represent themselves as an ideal type of their self, intended to be consumed by others in order that that representation can function properly to represent individual in question. The normalizing gaze in this instance, then, is not derived from some hierarchical and invisible examiner, but rather is derived from the individual himself – a normalizing gaze that compels the user to represent only his best self. To be sure, Charles Cooley’s looking glass self has a lot to do with this. Namely, you see yourself as you think others see you. So, the normalizing gaze between users is generated through the acknowledgement that any information you post is inherently meant to be viewed by others. However, the normalized judgement is wholly derived from within the individual himself. This goes beyond saying that the individual subject (Facebook user) internalizes the behavior that the examiner is imposing on them. A profile page is intended to liberate one’s individuality – to express the uniqueness of the individual. Though the representation of one’s identity is, in the first place, disciplined and filtered through the eye of the programmer, Facebook users bear a direct disciplinary power relationship to their own represented identity and an indirect disciplining power relationship to other users.

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