Prisons of the Cruel Inner God: Neo-Panopticism in Contemporary Western Culture

Emily Taber
Western Washington University


The application of Jeremy Bentham’s (1785) panoptic concept has changed significantly with the popularization of observational technology and dataveillance. Where Bentham’s model focused on the material, the Digital Age has created new structures of power in contemporary culture, altered how observers and observed interact, and influenced both contemporary cultures of observation and the broader social structure. I analyze what has caused these transitions and traced them to five areas of social and technological change, examining how cultural values have transformed and may continue transforming into the Twenty-first Century.

Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
- Walker Evans, Walker Evans At Work (1984)

“We have become a nation of Peeping Toms.”
- Thelma Ritter, Rear Window (1954)

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison has been the long-standing subject of surveillance criticism since its creation in the late 1780s. The prison itself is sketched as a circular cellblock with a hollow courtyard in the center. From there, an obelisk stands in the center. It is something modern readers might associate with the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The panopticon’s prisoners are all under the constant view of this guard tower, but they can’t survey the guards in turn. Further, the guard tower is impossible to see into. As a result, the inmates can’t tell if they are ever truly being watched. Theoretically, they will become self-policing individuals fearful of punishment from their invisible observers. Here, Bentham grew worried: how to show the prisoners that they are being watched, even when no one is in the tower? To solve this, he suggested that

. . . small infractions by prisoners might be left apparently unnoticed for a few days, thus emboldening them to attempt larger transgressions. Finally the Voice lists an inventory of past infractions, and prisoners henceforth become aware that impunity is an illusion, that even silence on the part of the inspector means only that he has chosen, for mysterious reasons of his own, not to intervene yet. [Whitaker 1999: 35] 

The idea of potentially constant surveillance hasn’t abated since the late eighteenth century. One of Michel Foucault’s founding philosophical concepts was the “trap of visibility.” To Foucault, the distinguishing factor that forced transitions from pre-modern to modern (and later, post-modern) was the power of being seen. The pre-modern relied on clearly visible figureheads to enforce social obedience, while the modern and onwards have put their faith in the power of invisibility (Foucault 1979). He himself characterized the panopticon and its continued function into our century as follows:

By means of surveillance, disciplinary power became an integrated system . . . [organizing] as a multiple, automatic and anonymous power; for although surveillance rests on the individual, its functioning is that of a network of relations from top to bottom and laterally. . . . it transverses in its entirety with effects of power that derive from one another: supervisor perpetually supervised. [Foucault 1979: 176] 

I argue that the post-modern era has changed how the panopticon functions. It is not that the panopticon (or the greater idea of self-policing that it represents) has vanished, but the transition from modern to post-modern changed it again. In the pre-modern world, everything relied heavily on the material world. To travel from Paris to Lyon in the early 1700s would have taken several days, assuming one’s horse moved in the upper range of its gait. Now, the Train à Grande Vitesse can complete the 288-mile trip in less than three hours. This is assuming, of course, that people don’t just use a camera and an Internet connection to see what they want.

Now, the power rests partially in the strength of making sure that it is seen. Current observation technology relies on interaction from all parties, not a simple submissiveness from the watched. The social networking accounts for Twitter link individuals constantly, always uploading and updating everything in their daily lives so they may see how the people they know – and don’t know – are doing. Thousands of people contribute to FAILblog.org, a sarcastic website devoted to pointing out individuals’ social failures. Millions check the site to watch how ordinary people have made fools of themselves through accidental infractions against society. A more common, and more frequented, example of this is the popular website YouTube. In 2008, more than 15 hours of video were being uploaded onto its site every minute (Learmonth 2009). The majority of these videos are people observing their peers, waiting to catch some ridiculous slip-up and then display it for billions to view. It even extends to cell phones, the majority of which are now wired for Internet connectivity, photography, and videos. Even without the capacity of an average cell phone, a simple model that does nothing more than make phone calls poses the same panoptic threat.

These might not seem like visible watchers, but they are. It also might not seem like what many normally construct as “surveillance,” running the gamut from security cameras to drug tests and even DARPA’s massive city-wide ISIS surveillance project,1 but the viewpoint of these processes as watchers is partially dismissed because security cameras and drug tests are procedures to which we are acculturated from birth. “We tend not to think of computers as surveillance tools, yet in all advanced industrial states, the capacity of computer technology . . . may have exactly the same impact on the individual as more physical and direct surveillance techniques” (Bennett 1996: 237).

In surveying technology’s impact on the panopticon, I believe some incredible changes have been made, highlighted in five transitions that can be observed from the modern/post-modern transition: Physical Structure to Digital Structure; Limited Effect to Mass Effect; Supportive to Ridiculing; Authority Figures to Peers; and Secular Omniscience to Individual Omniscience.

 Physical Structure to Digital Structure

In the transition from the modern to the post-modern world, there has been a shift from material structures to digital ones. This transition gained speed, in part, for a very simple reason: material things break easily. Any building, including the repressive panopticon itself, will collapse during an earthquake or even simple “wear and tear.”  The United States Congress has bemoaned this specific fact to Homeland Security and its surveillance subdivision of Border Control:

General Service Administration . . . found problems with the [surveillance] equipment. At the Border Patrol location in Blaine, Washington, for example, auditors found… pieces of equipment that did not work. Some needed frequent repair. . . . At other sites in New York, Arizona, and Texas, some equipment had been installed, but was not operational. GSA also noted . . . 60-foot poles that were paid for but never installed. [Hon. Mike Rogers 2005] 

Material structures can be harmed, malfunction, or collapse on a regular basis. Homeland Security’s towers are no exception, and some of the program’s criticisms are attributed to their material shortcomings.

Much of the technology in the post-modern panopticon is prone to the same failure, but usually not to a massive scale. If a single cell phone malfunctions, there is always another one nearby that is working fine. Cell phone service providers are constantly boosting their extensive networking and coverage. A seemingly intangible and indestructible thread wraps around the globe, and while it is possible to smash a single cell phone, that action is the equivalent of destroying one red blood cell in a body of trillions; two of the only things that could disrupt cell phones over a large area are solar flares or EMP grenades, neither of which are a regular disruption. Although the physical surveillance systems that link across our borders may fail and collapse, there are few gaps in the “tech fence.”

Another familiar area of study is observation and film, and Copyright Law is a good indication of change. Both Copyright Law and the authorities have had some difficulties making the jump between material and digital. Copyright Law has had to be adjusted because it originally protected only material copies, while “the internet makes it possible to copy, distribute, and display a protected film without producing a physical copy” (Wherry 2008: 51). Until the law was updated, there was no need to pay for a material copy when it could just be saved onto a hard drive; even then, the new copyright laws are frequently ignored and the damage is hard to reverse. By the time the first illegal copy of a song is removed, odds are the song has already reached a broader audience who in turn has propagated the stolen material and simply made it available elsewhere.

This brings up another property of digital assets: digital now equates with irrevocable. It is one thing for an object not to disintegrate, but it is another for that object to be permanently in existence. Once something is manifested in a re-viewable digital form, it circulates beyond the reach of its creator. A picture posted on Facebook.com will be linked to other people in the network, and while the original picture can be deleted, by then it is already part of the Facebook culture and nearly impossible to isolate.

There are other examples of the material to digital transition as well. A more entertaining and literal one comes from the Domino’s Pizza franchise. In early 2009, two Domino’s employees contaminated food by sticking pieces of it in their noses. This was originally a tangible, material action. The employees filmed themselves doing it and then posted the video on YouTube. At this point, it became a digital action: they had literally crossed the barrier between the physical world and the digital mediasphere. Just as interesting is the franchise’s response. Instead of publishing an article or making a public apology, Domino’s opened up a Twitter account to cope with inquiries and to announce their apology. The President of a massive public relations firm commented on this, stating, “they started a Twitter account and separated themselves from the villains” (Levick 2009: 1). Analyzing this statement makes an unintended but fascinating connection: if opening a digital account is separating oneself from the villains, then using technology is a just and good cause. The digital can be roughly equated to clean and good, while the material is messy and troublesome.

This clean vs. messy perspective is also reflected in other professions. Most x-rays are now saved digitally rather than materially, making it easier to transmit and review a patient’s data. Digital cameras have replaced some photo-processing labs because the physical prints can be damaged and take more resources to produce in the first place. By breaking apart familiar physical boundaries and re-ordering them towards a digitized culture, film consumption is made “cleaner.”  Cinema itself is helping individuals cope with how the neo-panopticon has altered the role of subject and object. Whether intentionally or not, the media can be used as an education tool to help individuals cope with their roles as the watchers or the watched (Marx 1996). David notes how little our resistance to this actually makes a difference: “even if we don’t partake of the offerings [of technology], our embeddedness in surveillance makes part of its algebra” (Bell 2009: 9).

All of the factors in a material-to-digital shift, when drawn together, allow for a larger criticism of modern and post-modern theory: that of the simulacrum and hyperreality. A simulacrum is, very simply put, a copied image. This image is supposed to constitute a “fake.”  Jean Baudrillard (1981, 2001), and later Slavoj Žižek (2001), argue that simulacrum images aren’t copies of the real but rather create their own realities. Persons existing in the physical world may photograph themselves and then display them digitally. If a photo is posted on a social networking site like Facebook, it serves to create a digital version of the physical person. The digital is no less real; it is simply in its own reality, or hyperreality. Žižek added to this in a media-specific capacity: by watching events digitally, those digital representations replace the physical events entirely. The closest I will ever come to the collapse of the World Trade Center is through digital representations of it, so in a sense those videos and sound bytes have become the collapse to me.

These hyperrealities affect how the panopticon functions in a similar way. Bentham’s panopticon (1785) was based in a physical reality, not a hyperreality. As more of the neo-panopticon becomes digitized, it creates an exponential number of hyperrealities. Each new video being watched crosses the divide. It is no longer a physical event but a copy of that event, which, to the millions watching, becomes the event itself. The physical panoptic structure is quite literally being replaced by its digital copies, but as it is replaced, Bentham’s concept of a material structure is becoming obsolete.

 Limited Effect to Mass Effect: The Shibboleth

The change of scope in neo-panopticism is linked to the material-to-digital transformation. Without the digital advent, the panopticon wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people as it does. Its surveillance abilities would be strictly limited to whoever was near the corporeal tower itself. Indeed, “many have seen this dream of a sort of automated prison realized only with the advent of the . . . of electronic technologies” (Lyon and Zuriek 1996: 7). With the electronic networking of cell phones and computers, two things have happened: more people are watching, and more people are being watched.

Ultimately, this is still achieving Bentham’s goal, as “the entire panopticon itself is a kind of theatrical spectacle for the benefit of the public, members of which will be invited to observe (Bentham was a great believer in the exemplary value of publicity)” (Whitaker 1999: 33). Even if the focal point of public observation is no longer just to intone moral wrong-doing, Bentham’s original model allowed for more than moral structuring to begin with, as the purpose of observation is determined by those watching.

The Domino’s example listed earlier is a perfect example of this. In the twenty-four hours it took for the Domino’s executives to find out about the video and remove it, over a million people had watched it (York and Wheaton 2009). YouTube’s most subscribed-to channel, Universal Music Group, has had well over 3.5 billion hits (Learmonth 2009). Part of the reason why more people can watch or be watched has to do with transmission speed – how quickly videos are posted is a factor. The faster a film clip is posted by the site and uploaded by the watcher, the more clips that person can ingest within the span of an hour.

However, one thing that has changed from Bentham’s vision is which individuals are subjected to surveillance. Quite clearly, if it was ever limited to criminals, it isn’t any more. The Domino’s employees may have been overstepping their bounds, but the subject of a YouTube video titled “Chubby Ninja Kid Falls Off Roof!!” was not doing anything illegal. There is no longer any discretion: both deserving and undeserving alike are subjected to the gaze of the public.

When examined, two different types of dataveillance are underway in the evolution to a broader audience. The first, personal dataveillance, concerns individuals who have already made themselves known to the authorities. Personal dataveillance is applied to the records of such criminals and deviants because they are deserving of the gaze; a regular example is the surveillance of known and suspected terrorists. This also stretches to the extent of non-criminal persons whose records are simply being analyzed for, say, tax or employment reasons.

The second type of mass dataveillance involves no a priori information about whoever is under surveillance. The goal of mass dataveillance is to watch as many individuals as possible, with the hopes of picking out those worth watching. This can be accomplished by analyzing patterns of behavior that are associated with criminals and then applying them to anyone who might fit the bill. Some closed-circuit television (CCTV) in England has been geared towards this goal, programmed to identify and flag any suspicious individuals in its lens (Matthews 2005).

They may not seem immediately related, but certain aspects of the shift from limited to mass effect shift create a modern-day shibboleth,2 a term that has been applied to cultural passwords since its origination. With the neo-panopticon it has gained a whole new meaning. Our roles as the widely-participating watchers and watched have created a set of passwords for cultural and social acceptance. Without knowledge of these phrases, people can be themselves open to being ostracized. A person needs to tweet to be part of the group (tweeting is the verb applied to individuals who use the Twitter network). This kind of social and cultural association, even if applied just to simple texting (another technology shibboleth), would be fairly useless if it could only be applied on a limited scale. On a massive scale, however, even unsocial creatures who consider themselves absent from technology are expected to know some of the passwords. If someone says “electronic mail” rather than “e-mail,” they are failing the modern-day version of the shibboleth test.

Having so much around to consume as watchers (and the potential of being watched on so many occasions) is also a side-effect of how broad the panopticon’s grasp has become. Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray noted that the panoptic spread has taught Western culture that “in order to be good citizens, we must allow ourselves to be watched and watch those around us” (Maxwell 2005: 15). Public busses and airports are slathered with announcements and signs warning about the dangers of others, and that by watching others we ensure our own safety. Western culture is accustomed to being scrutinized for suspicious activity, but little thought is given to how suspicious people inherently look when they are all observing one another for unusual or dangerous behaviors.

Of course, a society completely lacking in electronic technology may already teach its participants to observe one another, but cell phones, GPS, and the Internet have expedited the process infinitely. As Sissela Bok noted, “a culture of secrecy ‘breeds a culture of paranoid over-interpretation – one that reads suspiciously between every line, seeks and suspects plot everywhere, and undertakes constant surveillance” (Baylis 2009: 38). There is only one difference in how Bok envisions paranoid societies and how they are functioning in the world today: individuals are trained to watch one another – for entertainment, if nothing else – but we are not a culture of secrecy. In fact, we may be more a culture of indifference; the anonymity of technology has the double-edge of exposing secrets on such a large scale that indifference becomes a coping mechanism. If digital culture took a human interest in every secret, when combined, the risk of feeling emotion for each story would become overwhelming. Technology and the indifference coping mechanism have further helped ground the concept that one is the center of one’s universe, a point that I will expand upon in the Omniscience analysis. As much as we scrutinize one another, the subject-object distinction also trains us to ignore one another. Even without technology, we pay little heed to those around us whether on a busy street, in an elevator, or at a restaurant. When driving, we are conditioned to objectify those around us and construct them as alien. The neo-panopticon helps expedite the learning process of whom to scrutinize or ignore.

As an example, an ordinary person can find literally anything they want online; there is no sacred and no profane; information has been standardized for the sake of easy, large-scale digestion. The structure of a search engine trains us to ignore some things while studying others to find what we want. This should be expected, considering that in its most simple form, a search engine functions by matching terms and sorting them into piles of scrutinize/ignore. In the massive interconnectedness of developed nations, nothing is hidden because there is nothing left to hide.

Supportive to Ridiculing

The trend of supporting communities to ridiculing communities is a trait, more obvious in some places than others, that happens to lend itself to the evolution of the panopticon. Whether or not the panoptic transition itself poses productive or deconstructive changes can be debated, but it is causing changes regardless. Before the appearance of many serious technologies, individuals’ personal relationships relied closely on what was in propinquity to them. At the same time as (and perhaps as a result of) closer-knit groups, in many places there have been more supportive learning environments. In smaller communities people tend to be more caring towards one another than larger communities. When a person made an error they could certainly be laughed at, but the normalized response was not spite to nearly the same extent. This has proven true in online spaces as well: when a forum or group grows past a few thousand members, people complain that it has become too impersonalized and no one cares (Thompson 2010). This is related to the idea that “adherence to norms of conduct within the family is maintained largely by bonds of affection and loyalty; voluntary associations . . . use persuasion” (Mowshowitz 1996: 97). As communities have broadened, much of the love behind the teasing has become shallow or absent altogether, if for no other reason than because the larger a group becomes, the more superficially members of that group know one another. The broader point is that in an online community, a blog, or an MMO (massive multiplayer online game, such as World of Warcraft), what regular proof is there that one’s audience actually has sympathy for them?  This stems from the larger context that sympathy often isn’t part of the game; the driving force is how skilled an individual is, and in many instances the more ruthless a player is, the more progress they make.

This phenomenon can be compared to the physical/digital shift. When people are in material settings, their actions tend to draw more material consequences. A misbehaving child in the material world may be spanked or grounded; it is harder for the digital community to enforce physical punishment. This is becoming less the case as authorities have begun to manipulate digital communities to find criminals, but the anonymity of technology still allows for fewer real-time repercussions. While physical panopticons are conducive for physical control, digital panopticons are advantageous for psychological control. Part of the psychological nature of games such as WoW is that players don’t physically injure or control one another, but conversations can damage the morale of their opponents and make for an easier win. The latter of the control tendencies can still lead to a physical action, as on rare occasions a news article will say that someone was attacked for or committed suicide because of actions taken in the digital world. However, it is not uncommon for those caught under the neo-panoptic stare to significantly re-order their lives. Some individuals whose shenanigans have been caught and posted on YouTube have been expelled from their communities through relentless mockery. One of the most-cited examples is of Star Wars Kid Ghyslain Raza, filmed in 2002 swinging a golf ball retriever like a light saber. When the video reached stunning popularity on YouTube, Raza was forced to leave school and spent time in a psychiatric ward (Popkin 2007). The mass effect of the panopticon makes it difficult to completely escape from past infractions and ridicule.

One of the reasons for this change, again, is connected to simulacrum. When everything the watchers observe takes place so far away, there is a distancing effect. The watchers feel no immediate repercussions from their actions towards the watched, and the hyperreality doesn’t always carry enough weight with it to prompt watchers’ sympathies in the first place. A common mentality is that, when someone is jeering at the misfortunes of an Internet persona, either the victim should be able to distance his/her physical and digital selves, the victim deserved what they got, or on a subconscious level the victim is simply not real to begin with.

Often it is not even a factor of knowing who, specifically, is doing the ridiculing. For the victims, just knowing that somewhere there are people displaying and laughing at their image may be worse: instead of having someone whom they know – a warden, differentiated by uniform – on the other end of the lens, it could be anyone around them.

Alan Westin made a social observation that can be useful in this discourse: privacy and social participation are conflicting desires. As the panopticon and its punishments have changed, so have the coinciding social bonds, participations, and even the definition of privacy. Many people no longer consider privacy to be closing their curtains at night but knowing that no one is using their social security numbers and credit cards (Lyon 1996). The broadening grasp of the panopticon and the opportunity for anyone to be a warden or a prisoner is ultimately changing how we trust and are intimate with those around us. “The appeal of community . . . must take into account the forms of identity and communication in the mode of information . . . . In the era of cyborgs, cyberspace, and virtual realities, the face of community is not discerned easily” (Poster 1996: 191).

 Authority Figures to Peers

The preceding section prompts an important question. Who, really, are they?  In the past, it has been easy to divide the subjects and objects of the panoptic gaze: uniform, mannerisms, position of authority, and socioeconomic standing have always been indicators for who has the power to watch. More and more, however, authority figures have less power and in some instances are handing over power to ordinary citizens.  Now, anyone in a major city and even some smaller towns can find jarring statistics about how frequently each day their image is caught on a security camera. However, these cameras all take a somewhat passive role when compared to the neighbor’s watchful technology. It is even humorous that many official security cameras have no batteries or film; some are hollow and equipped only with a blinking light to maintain the illusion of function. They are guard dogs without teeth or even legs for the chase. The woman on the corner whipping out her Blackberry, however, is all the more threatening because she is not obediently anchored behind the till. When compared to blue-clad police officers alongside their flashing lights, she is clandestine. She becomes more dangerous simply because she is more prevalent. Although only certain members of a community are privileged with a badge, anyone can carry a cell phone.

So why the change? This can be answered in three different ways: first, the general public enjoys controlling knowledge and information. The societal standard is that those in power can withhold information from the common public, as is frequently showcased by governments and militias. As the panopticon’s scope has broadened, information is more often in the hands of the public rather than the dominant class. Holding power also helps comfort people with the idea that their privacy is safe; they are the ones maintaining the panoptic gaze.

The second reason for peers reinforcing the panopticon is to balance out how many identities a person has. As Poster noted, “with the superpanopticon . . . subject constitution takes an opposing course of ‘objectification,’ of producing individuals with dispersed identities, identities of which the individuals might not even be aware” (Poster 1996: 190). This has advanced to the point that having multiple identities can be considered healthier for the individual than being restricted by just one identity. By controlling the post-modern shutter button, people have the ability to forcefully control what dispersed identities are visible, and this is a power they are directly taking from their superiors. It is simply a safer feeling, when “individuals are plugged into the circuits of their own panoptic control” (Poster 1996) and making a mockery or study of social privilege.

The third reason has to do with finances and profit. Authorities are encouraging their subordinates to be watchful and handing them the prison keys because it’s cheaper. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently downsized three separate border jobs – the Departments of Agriculture, Immigration/Naturalization, and Customs – into one job, that of the specialist “CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] Inspector.” DHS then doled out a video to these otherwise untrained individuals that went over “meet and greet” manners much like an amusement park’s instructional DVD, which is more or less what the CBP inspectors were doing – restricted by their “one face at the border” rule, they could only smile and wave (Maxwell 2005: 8).

Other authoritative complexes in the United States have also given the power of surveillance to the people, and in some instances have even turned their head the other way as they do it. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998, PL 105-304) has a face value of attempting to keep power in the upper echelons of government by making the punishment more severe for disseminating certain technology and data. However, the DMCA also has a clause in which no service provider is to be held accountable for the actions of their subscribers. This is quite obviously a means to safeguard their own interests, but a side effect is how dangerously close it sounds to telling subscribers, “do what you want; we can’t be punished for it.”

Foucault heavily questions the binary between normal and deviant, but it is still worth arguing that tossing up the keys to the watchers’ tower can only bring benefits. After all, surveillance serves to normalize the population and help deviants conform to the ideal (Foucault 1979). One of the bizarre changes of post-modernism goes counter to this idea and supports the strength in being visible: it encourages deviants to be as loud and obvious as they can. In a sense, the watchers and the watched now take turns putting on Charlie Gordon’s lampshade to dance around the bar (Keyes 1966).

Despite the humor derived from watching one’s peers blithely making mistakes on YouTube, many people take their new watcher role very seriously, whether in earnest or in critique. Web cams go beyond the scope of reality porn and create the means to access every miniscule detail of a person’s life, starting with Jennifer Ringley’s JenniCam and stretching all the way to v-blogger Philip DeFranco, who posts at least once a week to an audience of at least 685,000 subscribers. Voyeurism goes far beyond this, but even at such a tame level there is something frightening about the ease with which we let ourselves be observed and observe others. When voyeurism crosses the boundaries into truly frightening or the physical, we still expect the police to provide discipline, even when their traditional material response sometimes lacks the means.

A common viewpoint in the past was one of resistance: in 1969, a group led by cinematographers Paul Ryan and Michael Shamberg created the video Supermarket, in which they openly filmed patrons of a grocery store before the manager demanded they leave. Upon his demand, someone in their party asked, “You’re taking pictures of us, so why can’t we take pictures of you?” (Marx 1996). However, this sort of social criticism is largely absent in the 21st century. When an individual’s image is displayed, they may have the opportunity to complain to the publisher but there is largely no retribution. At most, a video is removed or some token (usually not public) apology is issued. With such an absence of outcry against taking part in the observation of one another, it is no wonder the hobby is so popular; the police force, being largely ineffective on this front, offers no incentive to stop. Police show little interest in shutting down a teenager with a Blackberry. What other authorities have stepped up in their absence to regulate the ways in which we have learned to stare?

I do not necessarily argue that our neo-panoptic habits are used as a social mechanism to keep one another in line. The new system actually offers some benefits for being a deviant, which is something that is set up in direct contrast to Bentham’s model. There have been both solitary people and groups who have gained digital recognition from doing outrageous things with the knowledge that someone nearby has a camera.

The general trend of peers critiquing peers has begun another phase of change: that of peers now critiquing the authorities as well. Dan York, a communication technology analyst, noted that at the height of the 2008 elections this phenomenon was in full swing. McCain’s campaign team had sent a plea to YouTube that the company review its policy on suitable materials and broadcast campaign ads alongside unrelated videos. Hardly eleven minutes after a major debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, videos contrasting their responses with previous campaign materials were up and running, pointing out the candidates’ inconsistencies. This means that members of the general public were editing footage and locating counter-points while the debate was in progress. Some of the new compilation clips were viewed more than ten million times, and just the number of comments for some of them was more than official presidential ads received in viewership (Fernando 2009).

Larger corporations are not blind to how an ordinary Joe with his camera can lose them millions, and some companies are on-guard against their new wardens. Richard Levick, the same PR President mentioned earlier, came up with a set of strategies to cope with the harmful gaze. The topmost number on his list, which he stresses beyond all others, is “TRACK THE BLOGOSPHERE AND OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA. Be connected with the major players and be as responsive as possible” (York and Wheaton 2009: 2). Those major players are regular people, not CEOs. It is somewhat akin to buying radar detectors to detect police units: you’re tracking their movements, so you know when to slow down and how to avoid being caught.

One of the biggest reasons for this shift comes back to how normalized the practice of spying is. Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray put it succinctly when they stated, “reality TV increasingly relies on the willingness of ‘ordinary’ people to live their lives in front of television cameras. We, as audience members, witness this openness to surveillance, normalize it, and in turn, open ourselves up to such a possibility” (Maxwell, 2005: 15).

Secular Omniscience to Individual Omniscience: The Silicon Church

Giving power to one’s peers on such a massive scale with almost limitless access, especially when it is often used for social punishment and personal entertainment, has generated a rather obvious result. Through the centuries, there has been a lot of importance placed on deities and their incredible powers; billions of people are familiar with the concept of a divine being to whom they owe allegiance. Deities are seen as creators and observers, the enforcers of rules, and the omniscient beings that drive the human race. Digital avatars serve as diminished gods.

The mass populous is identifying with and imitating Godhood. People see fit to punish and reward based on personal preferences and often with little care for the consequences (which, as established, often appear to be minimal). This, in its own way, can be seen as a kind of righteous task: the more humiliating instances one can film and display, the more that observer goes up in social standing. The observers may begin to have followers, collections of Internet personas who will track their daily lives through the blogosphere or subscribe to their YouTube channel.

Even beyond this specific occurrence, it’s not far-flung that having all of these powers – and with no real repercussions – would give people the feeling of omnipotence. In fact, this idea hasn’t been alien to Western culture: “The notion of the all-powerful, all-knowing entity – whether involving God, super-heroes, government, bosses, or parents – is so embedded in our culture as to be commonplace, and we rarely take note of it” (Marx 1996: 230). The digital church is not really replacing religion but simply expanding on its ideas; there are right and wrong actions, and those with the ability to both oversee these actions and dole out rewards or punishments will do so. It is only in the last ten years that this power has been given to the individual. The brunt of religious sects and ideologies already condition people to accept surveillance in their everyday lives through the idea that someone more powerful is always watching, and the power they wield has the ability to change lives. Digital technology puts the ability to surveil and discipline in the open palms of everyone, and electronic avatars pass around properties once reserved for gods. Of course, the powers attributed to gods are still seen as trumping the powers of technology, but the extended metaphor of power is still uncanny.

For the average person, all-powerful doesn’t quite fit the bill yet, but all-knowing certainly does. And this enculturation of being watched is so standardized that the transition has taken place quite smoothly. Now, instead of ordinary parents watching their children, it’s those same parents watching other parents. Because it’s not unusual to be raised with at least a minimal concept of how gods surveil in Western culture, when technology picks up a solid following it becomes a competent imitation of that surveillance skill. Marx made a point of that as well: “[technology] honors fantasies of omnipotence and desire for control.”  However, where he went on to say that technology “reinforces our fears of the inhuman and inhumane mechanistic” (1996: 230), it seems more likely that technology has been embraced as an extension of the self. Certainly the idea of a true cyborg or sentient technology will still cause feelings of alarm, but there’s a reason why Blackberry technology is often referred to as “Crackberry.” In a broader sense this indicates a preference to incorporate and acculturate the fears of our machines, rather than be dominated by them. At this point, most of us love our technology so much that being separated from it leaves us with a feeling of nakedness or of being incomplete. Each new generation has more and more come to fit the motto of the silicon church, where they are “at home everywhere and nowhere.” Technology has inspired communities to embrace a “rapid and sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone” (Riesman 1956: 41). We are at home everywhere because that is what the technology itself provides: with a handful of plastic bits and wiring, a person in Baltimore can instantly be connected to someone they’ve never met, as long as that person has a Wi-Fi card. If that person felt so inclined, it would be possible to dial a random number into the phone and – in all odds – get another live person on the other end, perhaps half the world away. It is now desirable to slip the bonds of physicality, and every time a phone call is made or a book is bought for a Kindle that’s what is happening.

This, again, is a concept that deviates from Bentham’s original schematics. Power is supposed to be routed to a select few. Other, non-privileged members of society are allowed to watch some of the proceedings, but they are also limited in power and only present at the will of the panopticon’s Voice, or of the inspectors who keep it running. The neo-panopticon allows anyone the power to be an observer and have a direct hand in the outcomes of the ex-authoritatives’ affairs. Feeling that one can assume the power to impact thousands and alter the course of events has created a corresponding god-complex in some individuals, and with the same opportunity of influence open to everyone it’s not difficult to see how this complex could gain momentum.

Of course, we are also at home nowhere—first because most of the action takes place digitally and has no physical constraints, and second because all technology risks failing. This is an important concept. Do deities ever crash?  Many of them seem to have been afforded a blank slate of forgiveness – “if it’s God’s will” or “God works in mysterious ways” are both examples of the human inability to understand a Christian God; this failure to comprehend a deity’s reasoning could also be considered a deity crashing.  So the concept of omniscience failing isn’t new to Western culture, either, even though it isn’t usually analyzed as such, and the secular deities have been awarded somewhat more leniency than a Bluetooth. Once technology fails and someone can no longer be constantly connected, the absence of the prison keys is known to cause psychological traumas. Some people have gone far enough as to report symptoms of PTSD when they are cut out of the loop; they have lost connection to their social networks and, to some extent, their lives. It would be impossible to know if a friend or co-worker needed them. What’s more, if someone else were to spy on those recently dispossessed of their technology, there would be no digital social network to help break the fall.

Being plugged in has its repercussions, too. One of the foremost concerns is that anything can be found online. People can play voyeur to literally anything they can construct, which expands the panopticon beyond what is normally present and into what people simply wish to view. An interesting effect that has been studied is that whenever people watch a film, chemically their brains will emulate a reaction similar to whoever is in the film (Grodal 2003). It’s why horror movies can be so popular: from a safe vantage point in the theater, each audience member is chemically living through what’s on-screen. In this sense, the panopticon still functions as it has before because everyone who takes part isn’t just observing but in many instances is chemically participating as if in the physical structure.

Almost forty years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote a column for the New York Times in which he stated, “[The world of the future will be one] in which every person can be identified, and dealt with as an individual . . . handled by the only device fast and versatile enough to deal with hundreds of millions on a one-by-one basis – an advanced computer” (Mowshowitz 1996: 99). Asimov was close, but he didn’t get it quite right. It’s not the technology of the panopticon that is all-seeing and never sleeps, but the individuals behind the screen. People deal with one another, not a computer. The computer is just the medium. It, like any security camera, won’t function independently of human interaction and may as well just be an empty box with a blinking light to simulate observation. The neo-panopticon’s tower is inhabited by people interacting with other people. Technology just built the bricks.

Some Things That Haven’t Changed

Despite the evolution of the panopticon, several of its fundamental aspects remain unchanged. People still do resist technology, but that resistance is fading as more technology becomes both available and accepted into everyday society. In parts of Europe, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) group, which performs in front of government-installed surveillance equipment, was largely unsuccessful because many communities have adjusted to the presence of surveillance and moved on (Schienke and Brown 2003). Also, their resistance is directed toward the older authoritative surveillance – the SCP would probably not jump in front of an auto mechanic’s film for YouTube, props in hand and ready to make a statement.

Although it may not be used as frequently to keep workers working, the neo-panopticon still inspires many of the same fears. The fear of police observance has been replaced with the fear of neighbor observance. With the police, there is a defined structure to combat surveillance, such as taking a case to court, but few established systems are in place for the voyeurism of one, which leads to the voyeurism of potential millions. The presence of cameras in banks also inspires little fear because socially people are adapted to acting subdued in the teller’s line; also, if a security guard reviews those tapes at all, it’s unlikely that a person’s image will be publicly released.

Due in part to reality TV, almost anyone with a favorite TV program is accustomed to the idea of being the watcher one day and the watched on another, which serves in its own right to inspire fear. Having unsteady power that can be reversed instantaneously can be just as fear-inspiring as having had no power at all.

Another thing that has not changed as the panopticon’s gaze has is that the “meaning is not in the object, but in the context” (Marx 1996: 230). Bentham’s panopticon was simply a structure if its context was removed. Similarly, while a mounted security camera poses little threat from its vantage point on the wall, if that same camera is in the hands of a co-worker, someone waiting at a bus stop, even a friend, then the context has changed and it becomes a dangerous object once more.

Societal Impacts

Several of the major changes in society have been discussed already, and to scrutinize them indefinitely wouldn’t necessarily unearth more meaning. However, there are some elements of the neo-panopticon that are worth noting.

First, the neo-panopticon has created new community bonds. Within the bonds there seems to be less overall love and support but more of a cynical brand of camaraderie. Communities are more fluid and will change members and stances with ease, which is part of what has given rise to the cynicism within it. The corporate entity of Facebook has tried to address this and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has openly stated that “no one wants to live in a surveillance society . . . the most important thing to us is that there is a person sitting behind that keyboard” (Vogelstein 2009: 2). Admittedly, Facebook is a bizarre example of people surrendering anonymity but under controlled circumstances; the executives have tried numerous times to use their members’ information for material gain; and Facebook members can still be easily antagonized both inside the networking site and outside of it, through sites like Facebookfail.com  (Vogelstein 2009). In this sense, Facebook hasn’t made any real progress, and it still stands that the persona who is your friend today may be your keeper tomorrow.

Because most of these fluid communities are digital communities, a more profound rift is being constructed between the digital and physical. Newer generations are more prone to be connected to their technological communities and less willing to surrender those communities, downplaying the interactions of the physical world they still inhabit. They are also less prone to be in regular contact with communities in the physical world, further acculturating the mindset that their digital communities are more valuable.

The second change has to do with the gaze, or the way in which an observer objectifies and evaluates whatever and whoever is being observed[3] . Laura Mulvey (1973) argued that part of the gaze’s success (particularly in movie theaters) is the illusion of being alone even when surrounded by other moviegoers. The dark theater and silence from the audience leads to the belief that really people are alone with their voyeurism. However, because of the growth of networked social communities, the goal is no longer to be a solitary viewer. Someone in Atlanta may not know exactly who else has seen “Chubby Ninja Kid Falls Off Roof!!” but they know that someone has. Part of taking an active role in the neo-panopticon is the promise of an elevated social status for having been a witness, and in that sense no one is watching to be alone; they are watching to take part in a massive community. Physically, someone may still sit alone in a room, but the physical/digital shift has already been established. The man in Atlanta watching YouTube videos can be in instant contact with anyone who has an active connection; and still, just as watching a video inspires chemical reactions in the brain, communication (whether digital or physical) can inspire those chemical reactions as well.

This also highlights the fact that privacy itself is fast in changing both definition and importance. Based on the concept that privacy and social participation are conflicting desires, social participation is winning out. Despite the clamor to preserve privacy, when another interest is at risk most people don’t care enough to value their privacy (Gotlieb 1996). People are now accustomed to watching and being filmed, of having their credit card purchases recorded, and of even enjoying the loss-of-privacy in the process. They are less inclined to fight against it because it is no longer “imposed on a group by outsiders” as Bentham’s panopticon was, making it much harder for “members of the group [to] in principle mobilize and oppose it” (Mowshowitz 1996). In the panopticon’s eye, “us” and “them” change too fluidly for a strong resistance to form.

Simulacrum is also becoming more commonplace and even appreciated for its impersonation. Charlotte Risch, a former TV promoter and producer, said that “It’s OK if the look of something is shaking or low quality . . . it almost makes it more real” (Fernando 2009). Hyperrealities are comfortable because people don’t need to see the effects of their actions. As omniscient beings, they are not invested in the objects of their gaze; this, in turn, feeds back into the change of communities into more fluid and less emotionally bonded gatherings.

All of these, when gathered together, point to one major change: change in patterns. The technology itself is built on networking and discerning new patterns. Even past this obvious step, two kinds of patterns are present in the neo-panopticon: the internal and the external. Internally, the neo-panopticon highlights social patterns of the individual. It displays what involvement and socializing is acceptable on the individual level and ranges from what privacy is all right to lose to what videos are hilarious. In a sense, the larger culture is completely reflective of its parts.

The internal patterns exposed by the neo-panopticon then become external patterns – what is watched repeatedly, what privacy is expendable within a large group, and how all of this becomes sociable on a large level. Others see this pattern and add to it, leading to the continued post-modern changes and perhaps the rebirth of the neo-panopticon into something different.

Right now, one of the strongest indicators for a new emergent pattern is empathy. In the material world, this might be relating to someone at the end of a bad relationship. Being digitally omnipresent has led to understanding the risks of being both the watcher and the watched and has in turn changed the digital empathy. The new social patterns and simulacratic morals suggest that few people care about how their observations are impacting others; they don’t empathize so much with victims as victimize them further. For average persons, there is little interest in understanding how the neo-panopticon is impacting those around us. This doesn’t render neo-panopticism ineffective; rather, it shows that there is just as much pleasure in punishment now as ever, and one of the only effective ways to cope with surveillance is to become a part of it.



Special thanks to Dr. Kathleen Saunders, Dawn Dietrich, Fred and Meg Chriswell, and Dr. Andrea Gorghof-Voorhees for their input and assistance. Also, thanks to Pamela Statz and Dylan Tweney for their help in navigating Wired Magazine’s back issues.


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[1] The Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS) is a program from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in which an airship in the stratosphere would use unmanned sensors to track various objects. The ISIS program’s manager, Timothy Clark, mentions its ability to follow advanced cruise missiles from 600 km. away, but the project’s applicability has a much broader and more intrusive range.
[2] The term shibboleth is taken from the Book of Judges, where the Ephraimite soldiers were roundly defeated by the Ammonites. The survivors straggled across the river Jordan to seek refuge in Israel, but they had been denounced as enemies of the state and their accents didn’t fit the Israeli style of speech. “The men of Gilead said unto them, art thou an Ephraimite?  If they say nay; then [the men of Gilead] said unto them, Say now Shibboleth: and they said Sibboleth: for they could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took [the Ephraimites] and slew them at the passage of Jordan” (Old Testament Judges 12:5-6).
[3] The Gaze appears in a range of theoretical discourses. See Foucault, Lacan, and Mulvey for several widely-acknowledged perspectives on the Gaze.


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