The Internet might be an extension of the Panopticon—SM might be a prison after all.

 A short little post that might be too much of a downer–I’ll be more positive next time:

I began a mini-unit entitled “the architecture of control.” with my students the other day.  Our introduction centers around Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.  In Michal Foucault’s now famous analysis of it (in “Discipline and Punishment”), he concludes that Bentham made visibility a trap.  By being visible all the time, prisoners had to regulate and normalize their own behaviours because they were constantly able to be scrutinized.  Visibility was a mechanism that made us partners with authorities to limit our own autonomy and homogenize our behaviours.  Conformity becomes normalized; difference is viewed as dissent or with suspicion.

 While this is certainly true in prisons, many hold it to be true in society as well.  One might also extend the argument to include our online culture.  We are being watched while online.  As I type this, departments in my school board are recording my computer use—it is tied to my account and this computer specifically. Companies place cookies on our browsers; they compile our profiles; they data mine our purchases; and increasingly, law enforcement is entering the data mining and surveying game as well.  Everywhere I go, I leave a digital foot print that is permanently attached to my identity.  With this kind of surveillance, I had better conform.  The only chance I have to remain anonymous is to hide in the anonymity of the data stream—to do that is simple—don’t stand out!  Conform!  Monitor my own behaviour!  Regular my autonomy to coincide with society’s expectations!

Our students are being introduced into an environment that might ultimately end up controlling them rather then freeing them.  It might force them to regulate themselves and each other.  It might teach them to view with suspicion those who act differently.  It might add conformity to our world, not diversity.  Even in our most enthusiastic embrace of the Internet and SM, let us at least for a moment consider that we might be wrong—it might not be a perfect world after all.  If we do that, we might end up better preparing our students for some of the possible difficulties they might encounter…


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  1. #1 by Torn Halves on August 17, 2012 - 9:28 am

    Good point. Okay, it is a downer, but it is spot on. And your last sentence is refreshing. Among all this hype about how the internet is god’s gift to education, I rarely come across people wanting to highlight the dubious aspects of the technology. You point out an important one here. Another obvious one is the way the tech being used functions as a massive advert for the whole tech business, and it helps promote the unstated idea that tech will save us, that tech is prima facie good, and more tech is prima facie better, even if it is very expensive, even if teachers need to be sacked in order to make room in the budget for it, even if it becomes obsolete so soon, even if it makes kids feel less self-reliant rather than more.

  2. #2 by lorenzo von-matahorn on February 9, 2016 - 10:58 am

    What is your opinion (you didn’t really give it)? I live in a sort of grey area about this issue on whether it is good or bad because as Barry Shwartz said too much choice is bad and perhaps too much freedom could also be bad. This also teaches students to watch what they post and do online for they are constantly being watched; however, this is obviously not a subject without strings attached. If we are being encouraged to suppress individuality then we are being encouraged to suppress our nature and that is an issue.

    • #3 by Patrick Tucker on February 11, 2016 - 10:56 am

      True, my opinion is a little hidden; however, invoking the panopticon tends to imply an ominous, insidious power structure (well since Foucault anyways). I think that Glenn Greenwald talks about some of the dangers here

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