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Internet and Identity

Dream Team, Author

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Internet as Panopticon

The Internet presents a reality caught in abstraction, leaving it difficult to truly understand its power and influence on contemporary society.  It presents an alternative mode of communication and connection that is undeniably different from traditional human interaction.  It is, essentially, a blank slate through which many people have created altered identities, presenting themselves how they wish to be seen.  It also allows for the synthesis of new identities altogether.  In some cases, people have put forth hyper-real versions of themselves, taking advantage of the minimum consequence environment the Internet cultivates.  Samantha has already talked about the proliferation of the Internet in the form of ambient awareness (a term coined by Clive Thompson) and Bethany has discussed how we created these alternate versions of ourselves in cyberspace in an effort to gain the approval of those around us.  I hope to bring to light the implications of these explorations by looking at the Internet through a reappropriated look at Michel Foucault’s Panopticon.

In Discipline & Punish, Foucault explores his famous ideas on panopticism.  Based on the architecture of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault’s idea is of a homogenized power resulting from the physical and social structure of an institution.  When considering Samantha’s discussion on ambient awareness, this abstracted model works in contemporary society, considering all of the implications of the ESP-like social conscience the Internet creates.  As previously explored, Thompson states that, "ambient awareness is almost like being in the same room as someone and picking up on his mood and thoughts by the stray signals he gives off.  You create a picture of someone's internal state gradually, almost unconsciously by assembling small observations" (Thompson 210). This type of awareness is echoed in Foucault's analysis of Bentham's architectural design.  In today's society, new advancements necessitate that citizens are almost completely transparent and constantly surveilled.  If this were true, it would create a social morality much more powerful and effective than hierarchical power, and other forms of power found throughout history.  The internet could bring about a more more cohesive moral conscience for society.  However, once we bring in Bethany’s argument about the fabrication of new identities, it becomes evident that this proposed modern Panopticon is essentially flawed because of the allusive nature of the Internet’s power structure.

Foucault’s Panopticon is a system that ensures the automatic function of power by creating a state of conscious and permanent visibility.  It is based on Bentham’s plans from 1843 for a building whose architecture creates a constant sense of surveillance even in the absence of those in power.  The building is a series of holding cells fitting within a semi-circular structure, with a tower in the center for guards.  Ideally, the prisoners cannot tell if the tower is occupied at any given time.  A social energy is created from this, as inmates can see across into other cells and feel the suggested presence of authority, holding each other accountable for maintaining order.  In this way, power becomes homogenized and more perfect.  According to Foucault, this is the ideal exercise of power,

“because it can reduce the number of those who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised…because it is possible to intervene at any moment and because the constant pressure acts even before the offences, mistakes or crimes have been committed…because, in these conditions, its strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise…[and] because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind’” (Foucault 206).

Essentially, this does away with physical, hierarchical punishment by created a centralized homogenous power at the center of a community.

Although much of the aspects of the contemporary Panopticon alluded to earlier are figurative, the affect is much the same.  There is no reliance on architecture or physical structure, but the idea of transparency and surveillance, which lie at the heart of panopticism, are very present.  In contemporary culture, new technologies provide an aura of constant surveillance.  The massive proliferation of closed circuit television, electronic banking, cell phones, and social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, (all agents of ambient awareness) make it near impossible for the modern person to escape the eye of at least a portion of the public.  In some ways, if a person is disconnected from cyberspace (does not have a LinkedIn account or online presence for example) it can actually deter them securing a job or some other success in the real world.  There is a demand for constant and consistent transparency.  A simple Facebook account with information about friends, interests, and location can be accessed by a stranger unless certain privacy settings are applied, and even then there is no way to escape from the eye of the public.  What began as a way to reconnect with old friends and maintain friendships became it’s own Panopticon, where the modern human is subject to constant observation from the outside world, and thus kept accountable for their actions and their function within a community.

The regulatory homogenous power of the Panopticon is realized here as well, although on a less intense scale than Foucault is referring to in his text.  Because people are aware of security cameras, some disembodied and often invisible presence of power, people are less likely to commit crimes.  In the same way, the presence of phones that take pictures makes people second-guess their behavior in social gatherings, even gatherings among close friends for fear that their actions may appear online.  Similar to the Panopticon, people’s transparency brings about an egalitarian social order regulated by each member.

Although Foucault does not acknowledge this in explicit terms, the Panopticon only works with the presence of transparency and genuineness.  However, we have explored, through Bethany's writings, that people have the ability to manipulate their image online so that is more 'likable' within like culture. Reliance on transparency, makes Foucault’s “perfect exercise of power” flawed, especially in the context of the Internet (Foucault 206).

Given Bethany’s exploration of internet identities, there exists a division between the private and the public conscience.  As she points out, social media can be used to perpetuate small lies about oneself so that one may be viewed in a certain way.  Crimes, like piracy and identity theft take place, whose consequences seem less real than their real world equivalent, because the Internet world is caught in abstraction (the perpetrator is not forced to confront the person they are wronging).  In the same way, people can choose certain profile pictures, like certain pages, and post certain statuses all in an effort to suggest a version of a self that is more tailored for 'like' culture.  As a result, the structure of the Internet does not mirror that of the society we live in today.  Words can be posted online and the consequences are not nearly as severe as if they were said in person.  The very transparency that helps support potential panopticism creates an ephemeral aura to the actions committed online.  As a result, the centralized homogenous power structure collapses into a more anarchical power structure, where private sovereignties are established instead of an egalitarian social conscience.

Take, for instance, the way Foucault describes torture and public punishment.  It is a ceremony and  spectacle “by which a momentary injured sovereignty is reconstituted.  It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular” (Foucault 48).  This is a method used in older societies, with a more feudal approach to punishment.  The public punishment does not reestablish justice, but rather it reactivates power.  The public display, or transparency of the act is essential to its effectiveness.  “In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance” (57).  In addition to this, the doer of the act holds incredible importance.  Foucault points out that the authorities at the time would need to hold back ravenous crowds from killing the criminal themselves.  The ritualistic display of sovereignty was the entire point of the display.  If retribution were really the function of execution, the ruler would have simply thrown the criminal to the crowds.

What the Internet and social supplies it’s user with is the ability to establish oneself as a self-ruler.  People who have admitted to crimes (possibly drug use, etc.) or have controversial views can post comments or blogs under the guise of ‘complete honesty’ aren’t held accountable in the same way they would if they admitted these things in public or to existing power forces such as the police.  In these situations, the transgressions do not negatively influence the safety of the public, but they do hold a great deal of weight concerning the reputation of the transgressors.  In the same way, people can utilize this self-rule in order to post alternate and more positive versions of themselves.  There in lies the flaw in considering the Internet as a Panopticon.  Unless all humans involved in the great experiment that is the Internet are completely and one hundred percent transparent and honest, no Panopticon can exist.  It is not enough, then for a social contract of honesty to be assumed, it must be enforced by architecture and structure as Foucault proposes.  There are far too many altered identities floating around in the Internet for it to be ruled by a centralized homogenous power structure, or social conscience.

Nicholas Carr would agree that we have gone too far with our commitment to internet identities.  It has moved changed the way the human brain works, but it also has changed the virtues of interaction and the very fabric of societal life.

In my research, I stumbled across an interesting set of articles on social media panopticism.  Click here to explore this topic further through the writings of Tim Rayner.

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