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The Internet, a Tool for Art?



Surveillance & Control - The Electronic Panopticon


In 1787 the utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham invented a new architectural concept of a prison: A building shaped in a circle with individual cells aranged around the circumference. An inspection tower was placed in the center of this well, and lighting was used in a way so that the cells were lit, but the tower stayed dark and the inspector invisible from the prisoners view. So it was possible for one person in the tower to monitor the activity of many. The prisoners knew they were under surveillance, but none of them knew exactly when. They were kept in a mental state of being watched without being able to see the watcher.
In order to avoid punishment, the prisoners automatically modify their own behavior and discipline themselves. The authority inducing this state of mind in its subordinates doesn't need whips and chains to restrain them from rebelling.

"What would you say, if by the gradual adaptation and diversified application of this single principle, you should see a new scene of things spread itself over the face of civilized society?"

(Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon, 1791)




(image: example for the panoptic architecture, google pics)



Pointing to this highly efficient tactic for control, the French philosopher Michel Foucault translated the principle into an institutional model. In his probably most famous book "Discipline and Punish" he explains that, not as an architecture, but as a construct, the panopticon is the basic organization system of hospitals and mental hospitals, schools, factories. The individual as part of the disciplinary society regulates and tames itself, without the need of locked prison cells, only based on the consciousness of (possibly) being watched.


(Michel Foucault on Disciplinary Society, youtube)



What Foucault later stated as "Biopower", describes political power exercised on whole populations in every aspect of peoples lives (including for instance health and sexuality), in order to improve the efficiency of human resources. Hence the idea of the panopticon is not just about punishing criminals or prevent protest and dissidence - it is, first of all, based on economic interests.

This view on society implicates a comparison of the real life structure and virtuality. The internet with its virtual communities, search engines and data collectors shows some major similarities to Foucaults concept of the panopticon:



"The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude."

(Bentham, quoted after Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 201)


While it of course supports networking, the internet is also a space of individualization and separation. Having the illusion to be connected with the whole world, the user is sitting in front of a screen, all alone. Data and browser histories are always the traces one person leaves, one person with one IP and one ID. The surrounding of computers, the monitor, keyboard and mouse is made for one person who controls it. This way many people are chatting and virtually staying in contact with each other, no matter where they are, but behind their laptops they are alone. Often they don't know the people they are talking to, which leads to suspiciousness, avoiding deeper connections. The individualization aspect of the panopticon concept helps to prevent unwanted formation of groups and therefor sustains the power of the authorities that have implemented the given social structure.


(Un-)Consciousness of being watched:

We never know, if someone is looking at our Facebook profile right now. And if someone does, we have no idea, who. Like the guard in the panopticon is invisible and anonymous, so is the watcher on the internet. Above mutual surveillance of users, there is always the possibility of being randomly monitored by internet providers or state institutions. Every button we click, everything we type, every virtual move can be tracked and stored in databases, used against us one day. At least we definitely know, that our data are used for calculating personal scores or statistics in order to improve targeted advertising. There are ways to reduce dataveillance and minimize the amount of traces we leave, but only skilled users are able to properly protect themselves to a degree. While a total anonymity is not really possible, most users voluntarily give out their data anyways.


free prisoner



With the internet there arose new chances for democracy and deliberate discourse, but it also provides a new level of surveillance deeply integrated in society. Attributes of the improved electronic panopticon are:



Voluntary self-surveillance:

As Enzensberger postulated, the internet is a democratic medium, but also anti-social in terms of excluding people, who don't use it. Being online is a precondition for communication with employers, colleagues or friends. Having no email address, no Paypal or online-banking account, no homepage - no virtual life at all might be problematic in times of cognitive capitalism. We are - not violently, but economically - forced to participate. And even more, we are seduced to promote ourselves, and we happily use the virtual platform for self-portrayal.

Regarding the internet as a panopticon, it is an automated control system, which not only ensures self-regulation and discipline, it also saves the user's history and data, and over time automatically an image of the user is created. Companies buy those profiles, also called "score". Based on the scoring, the person either gets a credit or not, becomes a member of a health insurance or not, becomes employed or not, and so on.



Mutual surveillance and discipline

Within the structure of the Internet there are multiple layers of observation. While in the prison it is absolutely clear, who the authority is and who the prisoner, in the electronic panopticon no one knows who is the observer and who is the observed.The "inmates" at the same time are the observers of other "inmates" (just like the consumer is also a producer). While no one really seems to reflect on omnipresent ranking and rating systems, everyone joins the daily "thumbs up - thumbs down" competition. In the consumer role we love judging on statements, products and people. As producers or self-promoters we fear (and like) being judged ourselves. This way, based on a pre-shaped image by the culture industry, a whole society regulates itself. We watch, encourage and punish each other, automatically, without the presence of any higher authorities at all.



Independence of physical space

Contrary to former structures of institutions or surveillance systems like video cameras in public space, the internet is not tied to physical conditions like space or architecture. It is just everywhere within the user's daily routine, in workspace, at home and mobile via smartphone, since we can't live or work efficiently without being "connected". GPS technology and navigation systems which are included in almost every modern mobile phone, can be helpful to locate yourself if you're searching for the way in a foreign city. But as comfortable this tool is for the user, as comfortable are the tracking options. The electronic gadgets we carry around mean the perfect correlation of virtual and real space - and surveillance allover by dint of a personal mobile panopticon.



"A purely economic Internet panopticon 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."

(Tom Brignall, "The New Panopticon: The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control", 2002)



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