The social media panopticon

May 18, 2017 § 30 Comments

Jeremy Bentham famously invented the idea of the panopticon, initially as a way to manage prisoners in a maximally efficient way.  The architecture of the panopticon enabled a single guard to monitor a large number of prisoners simultaneously.

Being a modernist, Bentham started seeing the benefits of universal surveillance in all sorts of other areas of life.  (He was also in favor of animal rights, a right to sodomy, etc — in the 1700’s, mind you).  After all, as long as you aren’t doing something that offends the gods why should you care that you are constantly being watched?  This is obviously an efficient way to design a civil society with minimal violence; a society which does not require a lot of messy exercise of easily-abused authority, authority which in any case just falls to certain people by accident of birth.  Nothing about universal surveillance in itself interferes with a person’s freedom.

Bentham’s vision has taken a long time to materialize because (as it turns out) most people don’t really like living under the constant surveillance of prison guards; guards who just might view them as less than fully human, possibly tomorrow if not in the Current Year.

But Mark Zuckerberg found a way to convince a billion people to voluntarily enter the panopticon.  He baited the trap with an irresistible siren:  a perpetual High School reunion, pictures of grandkids, and cat videos.

§ 30 Responses to The social media panopticon

  • elspeth says:

    Well done, Zippy.

  • Bruce Charlton says:

    How things Are, Now is hard to understand sometimes.

    If Orwell had written 1984 about a dystopia in which Big Brother watched and listened to everyone all the time (including while they are asleep) using camera/ microphones that they paid for and carried around with them; that they delighted and boasted of their self-surveillance… it would have been regarded as ridculously implausible.

    Yet here we are!

  • MK says:

    Zip: He baited the trap with an irresistible siren: a perpetual High School reunion, pictures of grandkids, and cat videos.

    Nah. He did better than that! He bated the trap with some real vice, e.g. narcissism and voyeurism.

    Add a little ADHD, introversion, obesity, and stalking, we have some serious profit potential. God bless America.

  • Zippy says:

    MK:

    I know a number of grandparents who are on Facebook so that they don’t miss out on photos of their grandkids.

    It is easy to chalk it all up to the obvious vices on full display; but at best that is just a fragment of an explanation, and the reality is much more pernicious than it implies.

  • Terry Morris says:

    Zippy:

    …but at best that is just a fragment of an explanation, and the reality is much more pernicious than it implies.

    Precisely!

  • All the personal information people willingly hand over via social media for free is used to market to this population in ever more exacting detail. If anyone knows anything about Facebook Ads you will know that an ad can be designed to target 45 year old females making $50,000 who look at cat videos between 3:00am and 6:00am. This is no exaggeration btw.

  • Mike T says:

    Nothing about universal surveillance in itself interferes with a person’s freedom.

    The lack of privacy has the effect of forcing people to only do what they are comfortable with others watching. Most people wouldn’t even bathe their kids if they knew someone was watching.

    One of the many things Bentham didn’t think deeply on here was succinctly described by William Binney in response to his critics (paraphrasing): it’s not enough to actually be doing right, you have to make sure the NSA believes you are doing right.

    That’s just the nature of what mass surveillance does to the relationship between the surveilling authorities and the surveilled population. Human fallibility means that imperfect surveillance combined with imperfect human understanding will lead to more of the very errors that people like Bentham wanted to avoid by creating the system.

    And ironically, it’ll lead to authorities having to exercise authority more, not less, which makes the whole justification irrelevant.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    The lack of privacy has the effect of forcing people to only do what they are comfortable with others watching.

    You are right, they need safe spaces.

  • Elspeth says:

    True. My family (by marriage) has a “private” page that even the staunchest Facebook holdouts have signed on to. That’s all they use it for.

    My husband and I and one of his uncles and his wife are among the lone holdouts.

    Some people use it with noble intentions.

  • Mike T says:

    You are right, they need safe spaces.

    Do you think your wife or daughter would feel comfortable taking a bath or changing their clothes if men could leer at them through a perfected mass surveillance system?

  • Zippy says:

    I need to remember to put in my sarcasm tags.

    Of course people really do need safe spaces.

  • The lack of privacy has the effect of forcing people to only do what they are comfortable with others watching.

    I think it has the effect of very much loosening what people are comfortable watching/allowing other people to watch. The only things people won’t do are those things that can send them to jail/get them killed/get them fired. Everything else is acceptable.

  • Mike T says:

    I think it has the effect of very much loosening what people are comfortable watching/allowing other people to watch. The only things people won’t do are those things that can send them to jail/get them killed/get them fired. Everything else is acceptable.

    It encourages voyeurism while being tyrannical to both people who have legitimate reasons and desires to hide certain things as well as authorities who would generally prefer to not have to scrutinize everyone’s behavior.

    It’s similar to how law and order types can actually end up being borderline tyrannical to the police themselves by taking away the authority to decide when and how to deal with what they see. Many times an officer might actually prefer for valid reasons (including “I am tired and don’t want to waste my time with banal bull#$%^ just because some politician is hot and bothered about a non-issue”) to just ignore offenses that aren’t destroying the public order. With mass surveillance, you amp that up to 11, and one of the things that the Benthamites did not consider is that seeing precisely how much evil may or may not be getting done that they otherwise couldn’t see is itself a burden that is unfair on the lower authorities who have to deal with them. It’s just a bit too close to God’s view of us for a man to have.

  • Mike T:

    There are two parts to the discussion: surveillance by the government and surveillance by your average citizen (social vs political). Facebook manages to accomplish both. It isn’t just the authority that can see everything you are doing, it’s your neighbor too. So Facebook has made people much less reserved in what they say, do, and even think. At the same time, it makes everybody else more interested in everybody else’s dirty laundry. I think we are looking at this from two different perspectives (me social you political) and so we’re probably talking past each other.

  • Mike T says:

    The voyeurism comment was a reference to the social aspects. Related post at Return of Kings about a guy who found out a girl he grew up with is an “Instagram model.” It’s not mass surveillance if you want thousands of men ogling your goods.

  • Zippy says:

    There isn’t any problem with the concept of safe spaces in the abstract. Some situations should be safe from prying eyes and contrary opinions. As with “free speech” and so many other liberal obsessions, the problem isn’t that anything at all is censored, private, suppressed, etc. The problem is that by making these abstractions into ends-in-themselves liberalism guarantees wickedness, perversity, and degeneracy in substantive content.

  • And of course Facebook has accomplished making safe spaces impossible; all contrary opinions and all prying eyes have been invited, and people are finding they don’t like that.

  • vetdoctor says:

    Ah, my link went to the spam folder. I am so abused.

  • Zippy says:

    vetdoctor:
    Nothin in SPAM at present. Must have been gremlins.

  • Professor Q says:

    It’s not just social media, it’s also search engines and other things one uses online for the sake of convenience or information. Things like targeted advertising work largely on this principle.

  • Mike T says:

    Or maybe WordPress got triggered and sent the link outside its safe space.

  • TomD says:

    From Canons 220, 666 an argument can be made against Facebook, I think.

    Canon 220. No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.

    Canon 666. In the use of means of social communication, necessary discretion is to be observed and those things are to be avoided which are harmful to one’s vocation and dangerous to the chastity of a consecrated person.

  • Well said, indeed. It is challenging to be a privacy advocate in a world now obsessed with endless demands that say, “look at me.” So the things we once kept private, at least having some awareness that appearances matter, that not all things about us are brag worthy and good, is quickly fading into the dust.

    Worse, it is beginning to shape our behavior, so teens now publicly compete on FB, trying to determine who is more confused about their own sexual orientation and who has the most experience with STD’s. The system of social rewards and punishments comes through loud and clear too, so hundreds of likes and “you’re so brave,” if you reveal things best kept to yourself. Modesty is gone,and modesty as a matter of self respect is no longer understood. FB is totally running human behavioral experiments, they’ve admitted it, but it’s bit startling to bear witness to and to realize the lab rats have little or no defenses, heck most have no idea they’re even lab rats.

  • Mike T says:

    It’s also just precious when people get really upset that Facebook deems them fair game for its psychological experiments (hit Google if you don’t get the reference). All they are doing is playing shell games and running machine learning algorithms on the data that users provide them. It’s not like Facebook is invading their privacy and trying to gas light them or something like that. Finding out that one is a lab rat, how beneath the Free and Equal Superman…

  • Mike T says:

    Off topic, but this is a fascinating topic that would make a great post. I can see the merits of Christian women choosing to adopt the cast off results of IVF (particularly if IVF is outlawed and the society has to find a way to give those embryos a chance), but would this not count as a weird for form of contraception (he’s essentially allowing her to implant embryos from other couples as a substitute to being open to him impregnating her)?

  • Mike:

    From what I understand, IVF is intrinsically wrong so even doing it to try to save the embryos is wrong. I don’t think it is a form of contraception because pregnancy is a way that the body naturally becomes infertile (even if pregnancy is achieved through unnatural means). IVF being legal makes for all sorts of problems (now people are making jewelry out of the leftover embryos).

  • “I can see the merits of Christian women choosing to adopt the cast off results of IVF…”

    Zippy recently blogged about ,“Good ends don’t justify evil means.” The world today is such a mess it is more like, “clean up on aisle six!” The moral complexity I sometimes struggle to understand, are we helping when we try to clean up or doing more harm than good? Does adopting embryos somehow lesson the inherent issues with IVF? Is it more moral perhaps, to just let people make jewelry so the wrongness now hangs from our ears?

    Those are all rhetorical questions, I have no idea what the answers are, but I do appreciate Zippy’s clarity on certain things, the way complex ideas are simplified into bite sized pieces.

  • MK says:

    Zip: It is easy to chalk it all up to the obvious vices on full display

    Heh, I’m just projecting :-).

    I do appreciate Zippy’s clarity on certain things, the way complex ideas are simplified into bite sized pieces.

    You know, I’m often confused…but social media? I pull away from it like smelly mold under the fridge.

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