In the late eighteenth century, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham devised a circular building that allowed the observers in an institution to keep an eye on the inmates without the inmates knowing when (and if) they were being observed. The design was a circular structure with a tall central tower. He called it a Panopticon, and it was meant for prisons, but could also be used to hospitals, poor houses and schools.
The idea was that as the inmates would have no idea when they were being observed and when they were not, you would not even have to observe … much at all. You might only need one prison officer looking every now and again for it to work. The modern day equivalent I suppose would be a speed camera above a traffic intersection which could often be switched off or mostly ignored back at Police HQ. The mere presence would mean the people would self regulate. They slow down and be careful not to jump the lights. Accidents, costs and possibly lives would be saved as a result.
The question that interests me is are we witnessing a modern day panopticon with the advent of social media?
I am under no illusion that everyone on Facebook (or even all of my friends) read all my posts or see what I do online, but I know that (theoretically) everything I do online can be viewed – my Instagram posts and twitter posts often tell people where I am and what I am doing right then and there. Most would go mainly unnoticed, even this humble post will be largely ignored by the blogosphere simply due to the sheer number of competitor posts and tweets being produced daily.
However, I do take trouble over my tweets, posts, checkins and updates, and consider them carefully before they go live. The next day I see which ones hit their mark and which mainly missed their target. It is as if I am living in a giant online panopticon, not knowing exactly who (if anyone) is following my every move.
Which takes us back to Mr. Bentham.
Sadly his ideas were never fully taken up at the time, and he was driven to distraction over subsequent years through wasted half attempts by successive governments. In the end, he sued for £700,000 (but settled for £23,000 – still a huge sum in the early 1800’s).
Two hundred years on, perhaps we are all living in a Panopticon with CCTV cameras and ISPs having the ability to monitor our activity unseen. Plus, with people viewing our social media conversations without needing to actively join in, are we as aware of the ‘invisible panopticon’ that is out there, and are we regulating our online and social behaviour as a result?
[For more on this, see ‘The Digital Human‘ podcast from the BBC]