image edited by Web Investigator
Unburdening ourselves online can feel radical and liberating. But is baring and sharing all as emancipatory as it seems?
There’s a well-known contradiction in the way many of us behave online, which is this: we know we’re being watched all the time, and pay lip service to the evils of surveillance by Google and the government. But the bounds of what’s considered too personal, revealing or banal to be uploaded to an app or shared with a circle of social media ‘followers’ seems to shrink by the day. When faced with an abundance of digital toys that offer magical levels of connectivity and convenience, many of us succumb to a ‘giddy sense that privacy is kind of stupid’, as the writer Gary Shteyngart wrote in The New Yorkerin 2013.
That’s not to say that social media curbs our self-awareness, or that our internet selves aren’t highly artificial and curated. Nor that people living in oppressive regimes, or as minorities in societies where they know they will be targeted, aren’t justifiably anxious about what they say online. But the point remains that digital media have radically transformed our conceptions of intimacy and shame, and they’ve done so in ways that are unpredictable and paradoxical.
I moan about the lack of privacy, for example, and yet I willingly and routinely trade it for convenience. I am no longer forced to take my chances on a restaurant and guess which one is best; Yelp will tell me and then escort me to its front door. I no longer run the risk of unforeseen delays on public transport; Google Maps will inform me of the fastest route to my destination, and, in a pinch, an Uber can get me there via any number of hidden by-roads. I no longer need to remember my friend’s birthdays; Facebook will nudge me, and invariably lure me to post an update to remind people I exist. To avail myself of these applications, all I have to do is make my location, habits and beliefs transparent to their parent companies whenever they choose to check in on me.
So what’s going on? ‘Visibility is a trap,’ wrote the French philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). What he meant was that allowing oneself to be watched, and learning to watch others, is both seductive and dangerous. He drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century plans for a ‘Panopticon’, a prison in which inmates are observed from a central tower manned by an invisible occupant, his watchful eye seeing but unseen. The idea was that the prisoners would internalise the presence of the spectral watchman, whether or not anyone was actually inside, and behave of their own accord. ‘Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened,’ Bentham enthused.
According to Foucault, the dynamics of the Panopticon bore an uncanny resemblance to how people self-monitor in society at large. In the presence of ever-watchful witnesses, he said, physical coercion is no longer necessary. People police themselves. They do not know what the observers are registering at any given moment, what they are looking for, exactly, or what the punishments are for disobedience. But the imagination keeps them pliant. In these circumstances, Foucault claimed, the architecture of surveillances become perniciously subtle and seamless, so ‘light’ as to be scarcely noticeable.
Individuals not only accept this form of discipline, but it soon becomes invisible to them, and they willingly perpetuate it. Put people in a situation where they are the agents of their own censorship, and they still fancy themselves to be free and self-determining. Surveillance makes power ‘multiple, automatic, and anonymous’, Foucault writes – less about the top-down threat of violence, and more about ‘a network of relations’ that induces acquiescence. Foucault’s conception of power resembles Sigmund Freud’s description in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) of the role of the ‘super-ego’ in the human psyche: a restraining, moralising agency installed by civilisation in each individual, ‘like a garrison in a conquered city’.
So what would Foucault make of the current digital media landscape? In many ways, the modern surveillance state – enabled and expanded thanks to new technologies – is a shining example of the Panopticon. The American theorist Bernard Harcourt points out in Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (2015) that ‘surveillance state’ hardly fits the bill any more. He prefers to talk of a ‘tentacular oligarchy’, to include corporations now spying on us from numerous vantage points. To this we must add our audience followers, from colleagues and acquaintances to the public at large.
Foucault’s central claim is that such monitoring is worrisome, not just because of what corporations and states might do with our data, but because the act of watching is itself a devastating exercise of power. It has the capacity to influence behaviour and compel conformity and complicity, without our fully realising it.
But something’s not right here. The internet has no centre; we don’t need hard evidence of a conspiracy between companies and governments to know that we are seen online. We seem to be surveilled from everywhere and nowhere, and yet the self-display continues. Have we been so thoroughly disciplined that the guards have taken away the watchtower, or is some other dynamic at work?…