Privacy, Freedom, and the All Seeing Eye: The Panopticon

Imagine a world in 2015 in which fear is the dominant mentality. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence from open social media channels toward their own ends. Citizens push back against overwhelming information flows and privacy breaches. People are “digging foxholes.” They’re retreating to protect themselves.

This world comes about as people are sharing more and more information online, oftentimes unintentionally. At the same time, proliferating “Wikileaks” and other efforts at democratization through radical transparency are spun by state media to foment a culture of paranoia. People are obsessing about how their actions today might be recorded and used in the future. Attempts to regulate and curb the drive for total openness and transparency are unsuccessful.


Eventually, there is a backlash. People begin to seek greater security and control. One way to do so is to look for opportunities to simplify, and filter, the massive amounts of information by relying on single or select sources of information. People see only what they want to see and reasoned discourse becomes impotent.

Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere.

~Michel Foucault


In today’s society the boundary between private life and public life has been blurred. Thanks to the generation of Internet applications that support social relationships and the ever increasing use of new tools of self-publication on the web, a large number of people are able to utilize online platforms to upload personal content, and share private details, photos, and videos, with a vast network of friends, and often an unspecified number of strangers… producing, in this way, long lasting digital information that remains on the web for a long time, exposed to intrusive eyes.

From Facebook to Youtube a vast amount of personal material is shown to a mass audience of the Internet.  It would seem that, very often, the desire to put oneself on display is stronger than the fear of being monitored. Social media applications are radically changing not only the way we interact with other people, but also our view of what is private. They mark a move toward a more interactive, social, and collaborative web, but also one that is more and more coming under surveillance.

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and social reformist who published plans for the Panopticon; or The Inspection House – a prison modeled on a “visible and unverifiable” system of observation and control. His designs were revolutionary from an architectural and sociostructural stand-point as they were designed to lift prisoners (and their punishment) from the depths of hidden incarceration and into an observable space (Foucault). While the original design was never realized, the concept of a ‘panoptical algorithm’ was established, and by the beginning of the 19th century was being applied to social institutions requiring greater levels of surveillance and control. Prisons, schools, hospitals and military establishments acquired and adapted the model as a method of observation and accountability.


Two centuries later, Bentham’s model had become an omniscient presence in modern societies, with surveillance technologies observing our most banal and intimate moments. The dream of a small-scale architectural solution had become a powerful system of control operating at most levels of the modern state. Bentham’s Panopticon was destined to become “a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces an homogeneous effect of power.” (Foucault)


Foucault saw the Panopticon as indicative of a shift toward unverifiable observation – where the incarcerated were moved out of dungeons and into the possibility of view. Its unverifiable nature was of most importance. By removing the surveyor (in Bentham’s case the Warden) from sight, the subjects were left to guess if they were being watched or not. The effect was one of mass control through minimal input, with subjects learning to curtail their behavior as an outcome of the environment. If you couldn’t verify the existence of surveillance but knew it was possible at any moment, then the presumption was you were under constant observation. In recognizing the impact of surveillance on the body, Foucault (1977) writes:

The classic age discovered the body as an object and target of power. It is east enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body – to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.

As the application of surveillance evolved, the Panopticon became a general model for division and classification. It could be applied to schools looking to evaluate programs and outcomes, hospitals wishing to classify and monitor patients and treatments, and newly industrialized businesses looking to streamline output. Foucault noted that observation had moved away from the body-direct and been replaced by a systematic collection of data, under the control of an omniscient gaze. We now looked to a patient’s chart, a student’s report, and a prisoner’s record to ascertain their well-being, performance, and behavior. This was an important step toward the system of surveillance we now find ourselves subject to – a system where an individual’s digital footprint tells us more than direct, physical observation.


Where real public places don’t exist there is still social communication. Thanks to technologies creating cyber social networks, absolute prevention of human interactions has been impossible and social movements have bred. When users have decentralized, distributed, direct control over when, what, why, and with whom they exchange information, it seems to breed critical thinking, activism, democracy, and equality. This electronically mediated communication can challenge systems of “domination” through offering an effective environment for presenting interests and messages of resistance.

As with other moments experienced as major transformations, this moment too has generated its own utopias and dystopias, but, more important, it has also produced plausible hopes and fears. The latter range from the creation of a much more thoroughly instantiated surveillance society – where everything we do is visible to the state and/or to one or more major corporate behemoths – to a cyber-terrorism Armageddon, or to a loss of community and identity; and to a fragmentation of the public sphere.

The “hopes” include an unleashing of new, higher-velocity, innovation and increased growth, shared across a wide spectrum of political-theoretical traditions:

First: A liberal-social democratic cluster of hopes loosely termed democratization—of the polity, or cultural production, or economic opportunity, or of government transparency and accountability.

Second:  A libertarian-anarchist cluster of radical individual freedom.  In the case of the former, from the state, and, in the case of the latter, from both the state and corporate power.

Bentham’s panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. I know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker, or a schoolboy. By the effect of back-lighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light, and to hide—it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

Two of the main effects of the Michel Foucault’s disciplinary model were the internalization of discipline in the mind of the observed and the voluntary subordination of individual to the observer’s potential gaze. The asymmetrical power relation created by this building assured the automatic functioning of control and discipline, and facilitates the classification and the management of the prisoners, forced to live in a total and permanent visibility, while their guardians were invisible and hidden to their eyes.

The eye you see isn’t an eye because you see it; it’s an eye because it sees you.

~ Antonio Machado

Innovations in multimedia communications and computing technology increase the connections between places and the connections between people distributed in space, and as a result the intuitive sense of place and presence that governs our observable behavior can no longer be relied upon to ensure that we will not be seen, overheard, or even recorded.

On the Internet, the “observable behavior” is supplied by an avatar or a profile–a digital persona. The digital persona is a model of the individual established through the collection, storage, and analysis of data about that person. It is a very useful, and even necessary, concept for developing an understanding of the behavior of the new, networked world. The digital persona is also a potentially threatening, demeaning, and perhaps socially dangerous phenomenon when the digital persona and its relationship to the virtual environment is exploited to acquire information without that person’s consent or knowledge.


Copy/Paste Sharing, A Different Kind of Data

Every important sector of “big media” today – film, records, radio, and cable TV – was born of a kind of piracy so defined. The consistent story is how last generation’s pirates join this generation’s country club.

New media’s trend is consuming its predecessor’s content as a path to defining its own unique form. The “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. But, digital texts, images, and other artifacts begin to behave differently from their heavier, materially embedded, predecessors. They become non-rival assets – they are neither depleted nor divided when shared. They can be reproduced indefinitely without cost or loss of quality, and they can be given away without loss to the giver.

Digital content’s inherent copy/paste nature makes it easy for consumers to appropriate, repurpose, and reuse existing subject matter for their own work; although the struggle over fair use has existed for some time. Digital rights management and copyright infringement laws have become an increasingly ineffectual method to safeguard original content from hackers breaking apart the protection methods soon after release.


Nevertheless, lawmakers continue to lock-down the sharing of content (images, music, TV) to the detriment of creative practices and industries alike. Almost all new copy-enabled technologies were derided as an instigator of industrial downfall by those struggling to control their intellectual property. Early Disney animators were ‘stealing’ classical stories.  Eastman’s camera was capturing images without the subject’s consent. Audio cassette tapes, and CD burners, were destroying the music industry.  Video recorders, VCRs and DVD burners, were to be the film industry’s downfall. Now, the Internet has usurped them all as the number one ‘enemy’ of copyright holders.

Faced with the uncontrollable nature of digital information (such as music and video), some entertainment and networking businesses responded with unconventional models that acknowledged consumer’s desires to appropriate and control content. Much of the momentum came from Internet start-ups who understood the medium and its users (they are their own audience). Social media such as blogs, vlogs, podcasting, and wikis, are now pervasive examples of user-controlled content acquiring preference over traditional big media programming. A new generation of consumers is now reaching into this vast, digital, whirlpool of bits, and reassembling their own end product.  And, in turn, impacting the structure of content creation and delivery.

Cultural and media artifacts are now remixed at blinding speed and fed back into the network for entertainment, communication, creativity, and fame. It’s an iterative, massively collaborative, creative outlet. Our sensorium is no longer localized by the inexorable laws of visual occlusion and acoustic delay, the range of our exploring fingertips, and the wavelengths and scales to which evolution has tuned our original sensory equipment. It reaches to wherever there are sensors with network connections.


The earth is growing a continuous sensate skin, and we have bolted beyond modernity’s spatial and temporal extensions to a global condition. We are all tied together by our networks — both materially and morally — like climbers on a rope. If we are to reap the benefits of our electronically expanded social, economic, and cultural circles, without succumbing to their dangers, we must recognize that they actualize our common humanity.

The entangled nature of real and virtual social space is changing the way people perceive of themselves, their environment, and the boundaries of public and private interactions.  It has been noted, with great interest, the prevalence of intimate relationships taking place in virtual worlds, and of their growing phenomena as a complex social and cultural environment.

Virtual worlds are the outermost layer in the history of the social network, and this layer will continue to expand with the ongoing evolution of participatory online cultures. The impact surveillance has on the formation and structure of these cultures will be profound. It will dictate the boundaries that define digital personas, and the ways in which surrounding information is collected and disseminated into the network. Virtual worlds are privately run environments. Even so, debates over the emergence of democracy exist, and democratic-like structures are beginning to manifest. The evolution of a truly democratic virtual state may not be far behind.


Freedom in this context means the capacity to behave, alter one’s own configurations, and change the probabilities of one’s own outcomes. Freedom can be coupled with power, both intentionally and unintentionally. That is, I act in a way that is aimed at my own configurations or outcomes, but do so in a way that exerts power over your behaviors, configurations, or outcomes, and I do so either knowingly and with the intention of affecting your outcomes, or knowingly and without intention with regard to you, or without knowledge of the effects on you. Freedom is distinct from both power and counter-power in that it describes a possibility set for self-oriented action, rather than a possibility set, and actual effects of action oriented, toward the behaviors, configurations, or outcomes of others.

The term ‘degrees of freedom’ connotes dimensions along which an entity is non-determined and contributed to the determination of some combined outcome—whether it is mechanically in the range of displacements a body can undergo, or statistically, with the set of parameters free to vary and contribute to a determined estimate.

Freedom and power do not take binary values, but rather are continuously qualified; reflecting the extent to which actual behavior, configuration, and outcomes deviate from what is preferred by the relevant actors in an interaction whose freedom or power we are trying to characterize.

Not surprisingly, sociological complexities have been overlooked in the media coverage of the ‘Wikileaks War.’  The cult of personality that seemed to have grown up around Assange is precisely the kind of epistemological obstacle that must be overcome if we are to enhance the academic and public understanding of the place of hacking in the contemporary world. It is unlikely that the figure of Julian Assange is some kind of model for the hacktivist; those who seek to render the complex reality of hacktivism through focus on one high-profile figure such as Assange are substituting metonymy for epistemology.


The transnationally dispersed hackers who responded to what they saw as the persecution of Assange (and related on-going attempts to silence Wikileaks) employed well established techniques; for example, flooding target websites with millions of requests in a short period of time in order to overload the servers, and altering or defacing ‘enemy’ websites.

Hacktivism, as shown in the ‘Wikileaks war,’ is enabled, and constrained, by the same technological, political, and sociocultural factors that set the field more generally; the infrastructure of the Internet and web, the various structures of private capitalist and state control over these infrastructures, contestations of private and state control structures by hackers, and the accumulated skills and practices of hackers themselves.

But, who are the hacktivists who took up the keyboard and mouse in Assange’s defence? What are their connections and motivations? Their identities are cloaked by myriad anonymous points of entry and exist on the internet. In order to connect them to an ideology, we are left to speculate: perhaps they are civil libertarians, passionate advocates of free speech, or anarchists? Their defense of Wikileaks was pursued in the clandestine register, but that cannot be taken to mean that they all usually operate in this manner. A range of factors are significant for activism to take on the skill set, and practices, of open and/or clandestine hacking, and so morph into “hacktivism.”


Hacktivism has lines of descent that reach back to the pirate radio of the 1970s, even earlier to samizdat, and, indeed, the pamphleteering traditions that are as old as social movements themselves. The aims are similar; making an intervention into existing dominant systems of communication.  What is new, perhaps, is the terrain that is contested, and the techniques employed, in the contest.

Freedom and power are multidimensional social facts and practices, created by the intersection of multiple overlapping systems. There is a common and potentially destructive myopia, inherent in the attempt to empower any single-minded pursuit of any one dimension of freedom: be it constitutional-legal liberal freedom, like the First Amendment or privacy; libertarian market freedom embodied in a laissez-faire doctrine; communist “freedom from hunger” through state provisioning; or traditional progressive freedoms from want through well-regulated government programs. No single perfect system exists. We must seek to advance multiple competing goals, from welfare and growth to individual well-being, from individual freedom to justice and community, and we cannot find a perfect stable equilibrium because there is none.


Buying into Control

One does not have to wait for the passage of an anti-terrorist bill, or clandestine network of spies, to see elements of a Panopticon model being currently used on the Internet. Internet Service Providers (ISP) openly admit to monitoring their users’ communications in an effort to “protect their customers.” Large parts of the Internet are transforming into panopticon structures. A private ISP does not need to uphold certain constitutional laws when providing a private service to its customers.

The Internet becomes a cultural necessity if people believe that it is the best way to communicate, consume information, or consume products. If individuals use the Internet as a primary source to communicate, read the daily news, buy products, or download a movie—increasingly because of a lack of other viable choices—then the Internet becomes a cultural necessity. If the classic institutions of information dissemination such as newspaper, radio, and television, continue to choose the Internet as a preferred vehicle for their distribution of information, the Internet may become the essential source for many societies to disseminate all cultural information.

No longer do governments, multinational corporations, or politicians need to exert force when trying to maintain social control. Co-opting of powerful minority groups through the fear of observation makes it possible to eliminate the perception of tyranny. Tyranny leaves the body free and directs its attack at the soul. The ruler no longer says: You must think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us. Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically, and therefore spiritually, to be self employed. If self-oppression and conformity become the normal course of behavior for individuals who wish to avoid punishment, then the culpability of oppression shifts from the oppressor to the oppressed.

Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite.

~Marshal McLuhan, 1964

In order for a society to be made to accept, in fact, to request the existence of an Internet panopticon model, it is important that the model is perceived to be socially legitimate. In order for structures to become culturally legitimate a system of ideas and symbolic representations needs to be created that supports the oppressive structure. Incipient legitimation is present as soon as a system of linguistic objectifications of human experience is transmitted.

Through pop art technology, legitimation takes place by means of symbolic totalities. The symbolic universe used by pop culture elements can allow a panopticon model to look desirable to many Internet users. Laws passed by Congress that contradict the constitution, and eliminate Internet privacy seem filled with patriotic intention. The portrayal by mass media that the average Internet user needs protection from the evil of hackers on the Internet helps to reinforce the justification for the need of the presence of an internet panopticon. Technology has strengthened the power of hegemony. Technology has made it easier to continually recreate a modern and hip system of signs that perpetuates the legitimation of oppressive structures.


It is important to remember always that in the virtual world itself there is only perceived freedom or enslavement, but the Internet itself is helpless to do anything. Instead, Internet users ultimately decide what will be done. Even with live video chats, a simulacrum of social interaction defuses the struggles individuals have in day-to-day group activities. Identity and truths, when reduced to mere signs, make it problematic to separate the individual from the masses. The danger in the confusion is that a lack of quality interaction only strengthens oppressive surveillance because an individual may feel compelled to be the monitor of those that are monitoring him or her.

While a fear of a nationwide conspiracy is highly romantic, as well as evidenced, it is unnecessary that a national governmental organization has the entire Internet under control. However, it may not be the government that Internet users need to fear.

As more corporations merge, less United States business competition occurs. The companies left after all the recent mergers are likely to look for ways to know their customers better to maximize their profits. The ultimate corporate goal may be to develop a cultural structure that assists producers of products to know what consumers want before the consumers even know. Inherently, given the availability of such customer information resources with existing technologies, the Internet structure itself can easily be thought of as a panoptic structure.

If Internet users demand protection from online theft, crackers, terrorists, and pirates by demanding the privatization of the Internet, then issues of constitutionality and privacy disappear. When private groups take control of public institutions, individual constitutional rights no longer apply. A popular idea among many leading conservative Internet gurus (including Bill Gates, and Al Gore) is that if the Internet were to be run and policed by private industries, then the Internet would become a safer, more efficiently run mechanism.


If the panopticon model is accurate as nothing more than a marketing tool used by corporations in hopes of knowing their customers better, this is still an invasion of privacy. Having the potential to observe everything a customer does is highly detrimental to democratic values and issues of personal privacy and freedom. A purely economic Internet model, with no illusions of controlling the world in any other way but economically, is still an efficient mechanism for social control as a consumer-based simulacrum of social interactions.

Since the the invasion of privacy of most Internet service providers is highly detrimental to personal privacy and freedom, is it desirable to further the possible mass homogenization of culture in order to maximize profits? The real force behind this move is the debasement of our personal volition, and the freedom of the state, and of business, to pursue profit without constraint from the institutions that are the repository and benefactor of authentic community values, using their hired hands in the advertising industry to lead the way.


Editor’s Note: Kenneth Lipp is a researcher in both primate and human genetics, and writes regularly on issues of public health and international health care policy. He has published research on telomere attrition and cellular aging in various peer-reviewed publications, and is an avid advocate of human rights.


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One Response to Privacy, Freedom, and the All Seeing Eye: The Panopticon

  1. antifa_action May 3, 2011 at 6:38 am

    Great piece. A bit long but very interesting. The panopticon in society could be a topic on its own… and the challenge to new-media activists, and its affect on them… and ways to deal with it, could be a fantastic other discussion all on its own. I enjoyed it a great deal. If you ever decide to break them up and do them each separate, I’ll be looking forward to that. The imagery of the panopticon is powerful, great choice. Drawing a clear comparison to the treatment of prisoners, and the treatment of citizens and society at large, should have a profound, and hopefully inspiring, effect on all who take the time to read this. Thanks

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