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‘Who Watches the Watchers?’ — The Internet and the Panopticon

How the philosophical concept of the Panopticon can help us visualise the structure of the internet and our position in it.

Recently, watching the Joe Rogan show, it struck me how Edward Snowden used a philosophical concept known as the Panopticon in order to frame abuses of online data and privacy protection.

The concept of the Panopticon is fascinating; the name derives from the ‘many-eyed’ giant of Greek mythology Panoptes, although the concept itself refers to an architectural prison design by the 18th century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. What sets this specific design apart is a singular but important detail of an observation deck from which guards can secretly view all prisoners. The intention of the design is part of a grander utilitarian attempt to supplant God with human mechanisms which ensure good moral conduct. From its introduction, this idea received significant backlash from other philosophers. Edmund Burke wrote at the time that it was “the spider in the web”. More recently, Foucault latched onto the concept as an illustration, as he saw it, of how “capitalist, bourgeois values” are forced into the internal psyche of individuals.

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Panopticon according to Bentham’s original design

Nowadays, it can be heard used as a symbol of the internet; of how through our daily use of it, it is possible for larger systems to observe the individual better than ever before. This raises the question, assuming Edward Snowdon is correct to use the Panopticon in relation to the internet:

What does the Panopticon concept offer us in terms of understanding the relationship between individual and society in today’s world and what future developments might result from this understanding?

The Internet-as-Panopticon

Why can the online world be defined as a Panopticon? Well, extending the rationality of Bentham’s approach, the modern world gives greater means to view patterns of human behaviour than Bentham could ever dream of with his optical tower design. Governments attempt to track patterns of online behaviour to deem whether or not individuals have criminal intent. Social media and search platforms track our conversations and find patterns through cookies for commercial targeting. Judging by recent elections the internet is increasingly becoming the premier platform for how society and culture develops — one’s digital life, in the extent of the imprint and influence it leaves, is in many ways the most decisive area of one’s total life.

Even on a more individual level, everyone is aware that there is a digital footprint and that companies evaluate potential employees based on this. There is a generally understood rule that what is said online is more likely to have consequences in future compared to what is said face-to-face.

The individual as a ‘prisoner’ of the Panopticon

This present reality forces us to consider our own digital footprint and what can be done to uphold personal privacy. Individually if we examine our patterns of online activity as a ‘cell’ that can be observed, how do we lessen the degree to which we can be observed?

The first thought to mind is to decrease our online presence; however, to end one’s internet use would be to end one’s own personal development within much of modern culture. So, in addition, it’s worth using technology to aid your privacy. The use of VPNs and anti-virus software can help significantly in making your panopticon cell more private. Location information, search history, information online is captured through a wide spectrum of consent, which can be better guarded against. Even when on unrelated websites online, search platforms and social media websites still collect your data through cookies. This data does offer the user something in return for allowing their data to be monetized, namely a more personalised online advertisement environment which it may be advantageous to be engaged with, as long as users are aware of the fact that this process frames your online use, potentially guiding you as much as you guide yourself. [1]

In the near future, we are likely to see increased trends of data-guzzling devices from wearable health monitors, censor embedded equipment and better voice and face capturing technology. Personal sacrifices regarding data sharing appear a growing inevitability and consistent ‘prisoner’ challenge between engaging with tech trends and maintaining a private sphere. [2]

Today, more than ever before, we have an increased ability to connect by virtue of the same technology that also observes us. However, this wider sense of communication also means an increased caution as to what is communicated. Indeed, we internally decide not to post a particular opinion or picture which might haunt us in future. It is even indicated in the change of social media preferences away from Facebook to Whatsapp (more chat-based) and Instagram being dominated by pictures decreasing the need to communicate an opinion. Thus we could theorise that there has been a shift in trends of social media use according to an awareness of how data is used.

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Do we increasingly shy away from meaningfully making our own statements, compared to when Facebook et al was introduced? If we do voice opinions of our own it appears we increasingly do it in a chat which we view as more private.

The role of the Panopticon ‘guard’ online

The concept of the Panopticon appears not only to be an effective allegory for our use of the internet but intimately connected to how we treat technologies with suspicion, how we act simultaneously as willing and unwilling participants or ‘prisoners’ within the Panopticon framework. However, just focusing on the ‘prisoner’ would be to miss the other half of the concept which is fundamental to a fuller understanding. We need to consider the systemic design of the ‘cell’, but more importantly the human component — the prison ‘guard’.

With a system as complicated as the internet it’s impossible to pin down this ‘guard’ role as being the domain of a single individual or entity. For this reason it’s important to identify and look at the layers at which a ‘guard’ would make observations, and what the intent of such observations would be. The prison ‘guard’s role consists of them focusing not only on safety but also with making a moral impact on prisoners before their eventual release. Furthermore, they must also think about control and their own role within the rest of society.

The first layer and the most important would be the prison guard observing in order to ensure safety and preventing crime. Indeed, today this is the easiest reason especially for government to gain access to information. This is also the most important when considering Snowdon’s criticism of the government’s collecting of data, namely that they use fear to act beyond an appropriate scope of action. The ‘guard’ is required to decipher a vast amount of data, which needs not only to be compiled but value judged by a human being making it very difficult to identify individuals with criminal intent. This is especially true considering that such individuals are the most likely to be cautious in their online use. We can therefore challenge the necessity of capturing an entire population’s data if it is uncertain whether this is an effective means of investigation. Something that appears to be the case with regard to the Patriot Act, which has had a 0% success rate at least as indicated by a US federal appeals court recently.

The second layer of observation concerns the power of the ‘guard’ and the social expectations that define their role. Namely, it concerns not preventing immediate harm, but rather evaluating intent and actions that affect the structure of the ‘cells’ and the interaction between prisoners. Unlike in the first observation, the ‘guard’ analogy is weaker because although government rules and regulations play a role in determining morality, private individuals, corporations and the nebulous term of culture play a potentially larger role. Moderating content is the online equivalent of placing unruly prisoners in isolation and the creating of routine and selection of activities that should be adhered to. In our world, online content can be moderated in terms of laws, especially those that concern ‘hate speech’, but it can also be moderated by online platforms themselves. However, this is a fraught process as what is deemed appropriate or not invites conflicting subjective appraisal. Indeed differences in platforms can be as wide as culture itself with sites like 4chan gaining a reputation for more extreme (especially right-wing) political expressions whereas other channels like the Guardian can anecdotally be observed as having a more left-of-centre bias.

Like in the Panopticon prison, behaviour defined as morally wrong is set according to rules, online this is codified by national laws and a website code of conduct. These rules contain a human component of deeming the seriousness of behaviour. Thus, the ‘guard’ also has the task of deciding on penalties. Giving no answer could lead to an escalation of behaviour, while too strong a response could be viewed as tyrannical. In reality, no response would satisfy website users to the same extent as fear-based responses defined in the first observation would. Moreover, the same problem of volumes of data is apparent in the first and second layers of observation. There is also a mental strain forced upon the ‘guard’ who has to go through tremendous amounts of shocking content. People will tend to focus on extreme ends that prove their point:

  • “The prison guard didn’t do enough; they’re weak; they didn’t take this [example of offensive content to left/right] down”
  • “The prison guard is excessive, they took this [example of offensive content to left/right, whichever was not used in prior example] down.”

The identity of those involved in prison guarding will be endlessly examined by people from every political and cultural persuasion to work out the guard’s personal position. Often leading to a projection of the image of the guard which doesn’t fit with reality but rather suits the narrative of the world that the observing ‘prisoner’ themselves has.

Thirdly and connected with the second point by what conduct is the guard governed, how far does that role get influenced by the outside? For governments, we hope even as political parties change there’s a coherent structure maintained in the form of a civil administration which upholds rules. In effect, it is necessary especially in a democracy to have an element of trust that officials are held accountable for their actions. However, if as Edward Snowdon suggests, the NSA has so far been immune to prosecution, then this belief is under threat.

Furthermore, because data use isn’t limited to just governments the same question has to be asked of online platforms. Do they take a particular position, or do they try and remain as neutral as possible to ensure business longevity and success? The size of users on many online platforms outsizes the populations of many countries, with such a powerful position it becomes more difficult to perceive a ‘guard’ as neutral. Moreover, it may be more profitable to support certain causes, commercial demands mix uneasily with other social demands. Look for instance at the large number of companies which proclaim themselves as woke. Differences between cultures and national structures can also lead to even the most commercially minded firms to become slaves to demands from outside users or national structures. If, for instance, companies wish for access to certain markets, then this can come with moral demands which create mismatches with how they forward themselves in another part of the world. Zoom admitting that it caved to Chinese pressure to undermine communication between CCP dissidents being a very good recent example.

This taking of a moral stance of how the ‘guard’ structures the ‘cell’ in terms of what content is allowed, can have the consequence of the ‘prisoner’ disassociating more with his environment. Taking a particular moral stance can have the opposite effect of increasing adversity to the ‘guards’ role rather than acceptance or support. What is referred to as the shadow in psychology is forced to be withheld encouraging people to not engage with social media in the same way as they did previously. If they do engage it is with a broader movement, idea of mass hashtags, changes in profile pictures. Is this in itself a kind of safety reaction, valve release and prison riot, groups being more likely to expand exponentially because of the nature of the online medium, but also this response factor indicating that people feel less able to respond for themselves?

Prisoners in a state of repression, like people in general living under tyrannical conditions, assert their self and spirit through seditious activity. In a similar vein of thought, the desire for individuals online to assert themselves doesn’t go away and potentially contributes to the mental strain inflicted on the ‘guard’, as people create fake accounts to release pent-up dark feelings upon the world. A trend towards undermining speech appears to create and encourage a more extreme form of counter expression. It also means on those occasions when this environment is perceived to be broken, there is far more power to it.

The book/film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey illustrates the Panopticon idea of a feedback loop between ‘guard’ and ‘prisoner’, and the negative spiral that this can cause. In this work of fiction the ‘guard,’ Nurse Ratched, who is in charge of patients in a mental asylum, uses an extensive system of rules and regulations. She does so not to help patients or ‘prisoners’ but in order to assert authority and sate her thirst for power. Her goal is to break patients down, establish proprietary control over them, and reinforce the notion that ‘prisoners’ must conform to social expectations if they wish to be cured. She relies on threats and acts of personal degradation such as withholding medicine or capitalising on ‘prisoner’ shame and fear to have her way. It is for this reason that the appearance of a new ‘prisoner’ Randle Mcmurphy, who isn’t really mentally ill and has the intention to cause havoc presents such a significant threat to Ratched. By virtue of the way she has designed mental asylum life, she has granted Mcmurphy maximum opportunity to be effective in his havoc-creating endeavours. The ‘prisoners’, seeing Randle’s activities, are able to take heart, and are ostensibly freed from the belief that they have to be subservient. Moreover, Randle himself finds greater purpose in his actions and is even more committed to continuing them. As a result, both figures in this panopticon become committed to the destruction of the other; to commit to any other course of action would be to voluntarily give up their worldview. It’s a very personal internal battle as well as an external one.

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Effectively the book and film illustrate how in a constricted social framework shock value can find more power than it otherwise would. This is something that is especially illustrated in our modern times with politics becoming more divisive with people aligning to ‘guard’ panopticon norms or completely opposing them, increasingly building tension and less of an in-between. In the book, this alignment leads to nurse Ratched to behave like more and more of a draconian martinet, which only adds to her loss of control. Likewise in terms of efforts to moderate content online, while it may dam opinions that could otherwise be expressed, it in fact only encourages movement elsewhere and incentivises ferocity and damaging behaviour. Increasingly, we see political figures across the world, but most memorably Donald Trump, using this to significant advantage. Like McMurphy, the power is less the individual themselves, but rather the fact that they are perceived as antagonising the right people, and offering a general breath of fresh air in doing so.

The model of the Panopticon comes with a huge note of caution attached to it when it is brought into real life. Bentham’s over-rational approach to society reinforces certainties concerning right and wrong, especially when the approach taken is very hierarchical top-down. It is notable for instance that the most famous example of the panopticon design put into practice the Presidio Modelo in Cuba was used by both the Batista and Castro regimes to imprison political prisoners. The prison serving as an allegory of the revolution in that country and while social views flipped an authoritarian structure didn’t and poets and many independent individuals continued to stay in the same prison cells.

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Presidio Modelo today

Bentham’s panopticon deserves defending even if it is too rational a construction, encouraging the Foucaultian view that the design is necessarily top-down. As has been illustrated above, the position of the ‘guard’ can also be humanised, and therefore the interaction between ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’ needn’t be one-sided. In fact, Bentham’s ideas have an interesting history used by both free-market libertarians and socialists. The idea that social utility could be calculated based on the aggregate of individual interests impressed left-wing economists like W. S. Jevons who used it in developing economic theories in the direction of modern welfare economics. On the other hand libertarians such as Herbert Spencer also deployed the utility principle in Man versus the State (1884) and other writings to underwrite the liberty of the individual, defend the existing social order, and attack the drift towards socialism and “slavery”. [3]

We can’t assume that Bentham was naïve in believing that his panopticon could on its own create an ideally happy society, although he was naïve in believing happiness could be rationally calculated. So Bentham tries to create the best argument possible for his critics with a system of self-checking balances. For instance, the prison guard would have to be a highly tested and trained technocrat such that he could make the best moral decisions. But more importantly, such efforts would have to be matched by a completely free press and the prison guard would have to be accountable for all his/her decisions. [4]

Edward Snowdon used the more libertarian framing of the Panopticon to look at the problem, his principle point being that officials in charge of efforts to gather data are not publically accountable. As a result, they act beyond legal mandate in many cases, and even where they have legal powers they are unable to offer sufficient proof of the need or effectiveness of having those powers in the first place.

In reality, the online environment does not have any single ‘guard’ or even a singular ‘cell’ design but has different layers and interactions between them. Opinions voiced online are first viewed by individuals, whether employers or friend groups and these reinforce what can be said online as saying the wrong thing can have damaging consequences within your close circle. Above this layer, we have online platforms themselves, specifically search engines and social media websites, which use our data to compress us into commercially viable products as well as increasingly asserting moral positions. At the final layer, we have law and legislature, and the power that these have over cyber-space. All of these different layers interact.

The idea of the Panopticon is worth taking seriously because most aspects of society already take it seriously as a form of risk management. For instance, if a company is involved heavily in business options with a country like China, and an individual applying for a job there promotes free Hong Kong, then that alone could be sufficient reason for that job not to be given to that candidate. The decision hasn’t been taken because of any existing laws or regulations, but rather a shadow of the future, a custom.

Online platforms have the choice to make between using their powerful company position to act as the prison guard, to play a role in social moral realignment, or to act more like a business. There is an argument to be made that, regardless of their position, companies of such vast size and influence will act in both roles by default. However, the dichotomy takes form in the ongoing tumult surrounding the responsibility such platforms do or do not bear to police content on their sites.

The most important aspect of the online panopticon is the intersection between Government and Online Companies. If companies hand data over to one government it becomes more difficult to refuse to hand data over to others. As a result, these companies, wittingly or unwittingly, become fixtures of wider government and social policy. If they choose to align themselves to social norms then they will also face increased backlash and later overthrow from younger companies more able to align with the moral tenor of a later day. Online companies see this issue and want to encourage end-to-end encryption so that the task of managing data falls outside of their remit and increasingly is a requirement of states themselves. This raises an interesting question concerning the idea of the ‘guard’ and whether this would simplify the issue of responsibility, given that governments would be more responsible for moderating content and potentially, therefore, checks and balances would be easier to uphold.

The Panopticon is a fascinating rational model with which to observe society and therein lies the strengths and limitations of the concept. Bentham would be staggered by the Panopticon possibilities that the online world brings, allowing for observation and personal information as he could only have dreamed of. Therein lies the problem, with all this information and data comes also the increased desire to use it to a moral effect. What the Panopticon both as an idea and as a physical historical example suggests is moral enforcement never has one direction of travel, something also illustrated in the political divisions of today. Rationally the online realm like much of society needs feedback loops for it to function well. Problems arise if morality is treated as a data pattern. To think this way only makes the concepts of ‘guard’, ‘prisoner’ and ‘cell’ all the more real. We should encourage a simplification of what is and isn’t allowed in data gathering because if we don’t the lessons from the Panopticon as Foucault describes it namely a decrease in personal space and the fermenting of revolution within the structure become more likely realities. Finally, the online realm like any realm in your life is something that you have a say over how you relate to it, engage online and elsewhere accordingly.


Wonk Bridge