Project 14: The gaze in the digital age

Exercise 4.2

This exercise required me to read Michel Foucault’s 1977 essay on the theory of ‘panopticism’.  In his essay, Foucault considered Jeremy Bentham’s theoretical concept of a ‘Panopticon’ prison, and the way in which such a structure, would inevitably constrain human behaviour.

Essentially, Bentham’s Panopticon is a architectural structure, comprising a tall tower at the centre of circular walls, within which, numerous cells are contained.  Each of the cells can, at all times, be observed from the central tower.  However, no one, in any of the cells, would ever see their observer.  Consequently, the inmates’ behaviour would be modified by their permanent visibility.  In Foucault’s own words:

“The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

According to Foucault, such a scenario would lead to the inmates self-regulating their own behaviour, in such a way as to ensure the “automatic functioning of power”.

Despite being written in the 1970s, Foucault’s arguments have obvious implications for contemporary digital culture.  Take for example, the prevalence of CCTV cameras on our streets today, or recent news reports about whether governments should be able access to a person’s digital communications.  In both cases, we are talking about a powerful authority, which reserves the right to monitor our actions at any time of their choosing.  Should we, as a society, be subject to such scrutiny?  And how does the threat of constant surveillance alter our behaviour?

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