Bentham Revisited: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the Cyber-Social-Panopticon

Posted: October 10, 2012 in Computer and Mobile Technology, Experiences, My moral code
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I remember, back in the 1980s, driving daily down the freeways of Los Angeles. Millions of people, none of whom knew, or cared to know, each other. It was that great postmodern anomie that Emile Durkheim understood nearly 100 years before the postmodernists and post-structuralists even existed. That isolation we feel in a sea of other people who don’t interact. Well, today, things are different. The isolation of the LA freeway system will never disappear. But our need to be generally isolated has been mitigated, at least to some extent, by social media. Many people feel that social media isolates us even further. But I would argue that, as long as we use it as a tool toward social interaction and not a replacement for it, social media can enhance our inter connectivity and reduce our sense of isolation.

But, here’s the rub. A hundred years before Durkheim, Jeremy Bentham invented something that has a striking similarity to a specific aspect of the internet. He created a prison system architecturally structured in such a way that guards could see all the prisoners but the prisoners could not see the guards. This design of guard towers was called a “panopticon”. The premise of the design is that if the prisoners never know whether or not they are being watched, you don’t have to watch them all the time. They’ll be “well-behaved” because they might be being watched. This is what I feel is the downside of social media, and the Internet in general.

We think we are free to interact with our friends. But we have to be careful. Kids have to worry that one wrong party picture will affect a college acceptance. Parents have to worry that posting a cute picture of their middle school child will invite sexual predators. Checking in on Foursquare tells everyone you’re not at home. Even I, at 52, have to wonder whether one silly tweet could offset 3 decades of great work in computer graphics and television technology. So, the fact is, we really aren’t free. Every time we post to Facebook or Twitter, or we post to a blog (like this) we choose to forsake our privacy (which, when surrounded by the big virtual panopticon in the ether is, for all intents and purposes, our freedom). So, at least in one way, the Internet doesn’t really make our lives better. It makes us choose either social interaction or freedom; basically you can’t have both.

So, just to be clear, I’m going to continue to use my Facebook, Twitter, G+, and Foursquare accounts; and I’m going to continue to blog. But the next time I actually crave social interaction, I think I’ll head down to the Coffee Nook to hang out with the “old guys” and read the news on some nice old-fashioned dead trees.

Consider this: perhaps not everything new is “progress”. Just some food for thought.

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