Monday, May 3, 2010

Panopticon Irony

Panopticon Irony
by Jonathan Chou

Technology as a whole has seen the modernization and reinterpretation of countless tools and concepts conceived by thinkers of the past. Take the abacus that became the calculator, the calculator that became the computer. Take Da Vinci’s flying machine that became the airplane and the helicopter. Many of the things society takes for granted as recent innovations are in fact technological reapplications of ideas thought up long ago. Perhaps one of the most relevant and commonly used of these reapplications is that of Michel Foucault’s Panopticon. As Foucault details in his essay, “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the Panopticon has served as a model for “hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons” (205), and now, in contemporary society, technology has allowed for the expansion of its applications, inspiring modes of thought like Phil Agre’s “capture” theory, obsession about the boundary of the public and private spheres, and more physical applications like increased security in prisons, more effective contamination wards, more effective ways to educate. One such reapplication of the Panopticon that stood out among the rest because of its increasing popularity as a new media object is the fairly recent surge of blogging. In many ways, blogging is a new, modern interpretation of the Panopticon on the internet, allowing for technology to serve as a confining, imprisoning force just as much as a liberating force. More specifically, I’ll be investigating Blogger through this class’s (MCM 0230) application of Blogger to collect weekly blogposts.

First however, the basis to this comparison must first be detailed. The Panopticon was conceived at the end of the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham in response to the threat of a potential plague, theorized primarily to be used as a building in which the contaminated could be quarantined and isolated. Soon after the idea was published, the Panopticon became recognized for its countless uses and served as a model for, as mentioned above, prisons, schools, hospitals, and other such institutions. In order to facilitate this investigation, an introduction of the structure of the Panopticon will be presented simultaneously with a comparison of the Panopticon, as it was explained in 1785, with the Panopticon, as it can be seen in the class’s use of Blogger. To begin, the basic structure of the Panopticon involves an annular building which surrounds a solitary tower from which all sides of the building can be seen. The building itself contains isolated cells where the occupants of the Panopticon are contained. The Panopticon is built in such a way that each captive can be seen constantly yet are unable to see the supervisor, situated in the tower. For the class’s Blogger, this structure is obviously mimicked metaphorically by taking the form of a blog in which the original creator of the blog, the one who invites and manages the blog, can be seen as the supervisor, standing in the middle of the Panopticon. This supervisor is able to see the occupants, who are the invitees and posters on the blog, and their every action, which manifests itself as a blog post. In the beginning of the Foucault excerpt, Foucault details the system in which the contaminated city is surveyed by what he calls syndics, surveyors of a section of the city. In the case of the class’s Blogger, the TA’s who go about grading and reading the posts are synonymous to these syndics. Interestingly, according to Foucault, these syndics were to be sentenced to death if they left their appointed streets. One of the key characteristics of the Panopticon that Foucault presents is the transparency of the Panopticon – “any member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function” (207). Like the real Panopticon, Blogger is an open space that allows anyone who wishes to look into the Panopticon to enter and read the occupants’ posts. In fact, the blog that the class uses not only preserves the posts of all occupants, but also the posts of past occupants, creating a new type of Panopticon that spans not only the entirety of the class, but also time.

In terms of conceptual applications, Blogger takes on almost all attributes of the Panopticon. Perhaps, the first aspect that should be explained because of its importance in laying a base for other conclusions is the visibility granted to occupants on the Panopticon. As Foucault explains it, “visibility is a trap” (200). Unlike orthodox prison structures, the Panopticon is fully lit and there are no corners of the cell space that the supervisor cannot see. Like the architectural Panopticon, Blogger serves to mimic this idea of visibility by impressing upon the bloggers a sense of privacy and freedom. Bloggers are free to formulate ideas, and personalize their account, but the truth is that everything that is posted can and will be seen by the creator of the blog, if not by the syndics who can be assumed to have special priveliges. True, it is possible to edit a post, but even that can be seen and monitored. As Matthew G. Kirshenbaum presents in his essay “Every Contact Leaves a Trace” from Mechanisms: New Media nad the Forensic Imagination that every choice made through technology leaves some trace, some evidence that can eventually be used. Indeed, it is possible to see the time when each blog is posted, or edited. Here is evidence:
Hi Jonathan,
I will consider whatever you send me last before 5pm to be the final draft.
Best,
Matt
(3:21 PM)
It is impossible to submit this essay after 5 pm simply because every action carries evidence of when it was done, and possibly, given the technology and access, where it was done from. However, it is impossible for the blogger to feel the presence of the supervisor, just as the occupants of the original version of the Panopticon are not able to see the supervisor either – “He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” (200). Foucault goes on to posit the mindset of the occupants, saying that the power the Panopticon promotes is one that is self-sustaining. The belief that they are always being watched by “the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon” (201) forces the occupants of the Panopticon to act in a certain way, tailoring their decisions and actions so as to minimize the possibility that they will be noticed by the supervisor. Applying this idea to Blogger, bloggers are unable to detect the presence of the supervisor, or the syndics, who may or may not be reading every word that is posted on the blog, censoring it for purposes that will be investigated later on.

Thus, if Blogger, and more specifically the blogging website used for MCM 0230, can be seen as a modern application of the Panopticon, then the same effects and implications the Panopticon introduces are also relevant to Blogger and the blogging website. The first effect that Foucault posits for the Panopticon is its ability to “observe performances, to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications” (203). With the use of a Panopticon, “it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behavior, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application” (202) because of its ability to induce a sense of visibility in the occupants, reinforcing their own captivity. This means, for blogging, that there need not be a strict sense of what kind of posts must be produced because bloggers will naturally produce the best posts they can in order to avoid detection. More important than this, however, is the effect of a Panopticon-esque blog-posting system on the dissemination of information and education. Because of the isolated, controlled nature, any blogger can be picked out of the rest, any blog post can be erased by the original creator and syndics, tailoring what is open to the public to read and absorb into whatever the creator desires to be shared. In this way, if the idea of the Panopticon can truly be applied to blogging, then blogging becomes a way for the creators to control the bloggers “because it is possible to intervene at any moment and because the constant pressure acts even before the offences, mistakes or crimes have been committed” (206). This constant pressure being the pressure not only to conform to what the supervisor will not notice as an anomaly, but as well as the pressure of the supervisor being able to see all, and change all. Essentially, what this accomplishes is the destruction of any type of rebellion – “there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences… if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time” (200-201), and, especially, no posts that undermine the very structure of blogging.

Thus, Blogger, and the blog MCM 0230 uses, becomes a prison. More specifically, a prison of thought, and time. The idea of the Panopticon has seen widespread use in contemporary society and indeed, perhaps any educational facility needs to resemble a Panopticon in order to function efficiently. Without a structure that is able to stop nonconformists, society would cease to function correctly.

30 comments:

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