Thursday, February 9, 2012

Who's watching who?

My vocabulary is not as large as it should be, so when Nuno Maia used the phrase "visions of prisons and panopticons rebounding in my mind" in this thread, I had no idea what was being discussed, nor did I have any idea what prisons could have to do with web services.

So I poked around and found a 2002 paper authored by Tom Brignall III, then of Tennessee Tech University, entitled "The New Panopticon: The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control."

For vocabulary-challenged people like me, Brignall took them time to define "panopticon":

The panopticon as a conceptual structure can be applied to any physical structure that provides the ability of those in a position of authority to monitor the “inmates” without the “inmates” knowing when they are being monitored.

When initially defined, a panopticon was conceptualized as a physical place, such as a prison, in which the guards were in the center. By the strictest definition, your typical prison with cellblocks surrounding the guardhouse is not necessarily a panopticon, because a true panopticon needs to be designed so that the inmates don't know that they're being watched.

Brignall was writing in 2002, well before there were massive public outcries regarding what Facebook and Google and Apple were doing with people's data. But privacy has certainly been a longstanding concern, and Brignall was already noticing something about the Internet culture. And on the Net, Brignall noticed something unusual:

What is unique within the structure of the Internet is that it allows multiple layers of observation to occur such that the “inmates” can become the observers of other “inmates”. In such a situation, no one knows who is the observer and who is the observed.

Read the rest of Brignall's paper here.
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