Our Duty In The Brave New Panopticon

I have always been fascinated with the Panopticon. It figured in an essay I wrote about leadership some time ago, but my interest in it goes way back. As social media, and especially Facebook, has grown and evolved over the past handful of years, I keep thinking it is time to revisit the panopticon. With the recent changes now rolling out across the Facebook landscape, which include “passive sharing,” now seems the time.

The Panopticon was a unique prison design, rooted in moral philosophy. Here is my description of it from my 2004 essay:

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

Today, we live in the Panopticon. Our every move is visible. Facebook’s recent shift to an Open Graph (where my actions on outside web sites can be recorded and posted to my stream in real time) is one fresh example, but the truth is that we live in the Panopticon every day everywhere. In a world where everything can be shared, everything is shared.

We used to imagine we had a zone of privacy brought about by anonymity when we were in the public, but no more. If I do something boneheaded in a public place, it is quite likely that someone is filming me and will upload it to YouTube, or Tweet about it.

The typical response to this observation is that living in the Panopticon is a bad thing. Where is the privacy?

But I am not so sure. There is a strong up side to the Panopticon. That’s its allure. Certainly, when police officers are overstepping their bounds and harassing people, we can be thankful that footage of their misdeeds pops up and gets shared. When political office holders think sending photos of their junk to people is a reasonable means of courtship, we can be glad that inadvertently slips of the keyboard get such idiocy out in the open.

There is also a mighty downside to the Panopticon. Whistleblowers need and deserve anonymity. Victims of violence need and deserve anonymity. Dissenters need and deserve anonymity. Yet the Panopticon works against anonymity, exposing all.

The point of the Panopticon is not that everything I do is being watched — it is that everything I do might be watched. The theory then goes that I will therefore act accordingly. The downside of this is that it chills otherwise free speech and behavior. The up side is that I supposedly will moderate my baser desires.

However, this theory is disproved every day. No one can reasonably believe that they can truly find a zone of privacy to shield bad behavior. But day after day, people act as if the Panopticon did not exist. They persist in the magical thinking that just becuase I do not see anyone watching me, that no one is.

But today, someone always is.

I believe it is too late to roll back the changes in society that have led to the Panopticon. Visibility is too ingrained across almost every activity. We can stem the tide, but we can’t stop it.

Eventually, we will collectively come to grips with the Panopticon. I am hopeful that the result will be greater tolerance.

Ten years ago, collegiate use of “soft” drugs like marijuana could still derail a political career. Now, not so much. Five years ago, you would see a regular drumbeat of articles admonishing college kids to scrub their Facebook profiles to make sure they don’t have any photos of themselves at parties. Now, you don’t see so many such articles, because hiring managers are beginning to accept the notion that people don’t always behave the way one would wish.

While I am hopeful about the outcome, the road there may be rocky. We have some years ahead of us where things may be ugly. We will see behaviors that used to be hidden. We will over-react and — in some cases — under-react. The marginal will continue to be persecuted. We will have intolerance and lynch mobs (figurative and literal). This saddens me, but I believe it is likely.

Eventually, I hope we can as individuals reach a collective conclusion about the Panopticon. If I live in the Panopticon, I have a double moral duty: On the one hand, I must moderate my behavior and do right as often as I can; on the other hand, I must exercise tolerance because I know that the harsh glare of judgment I shine on others could easily be shone on me.

We all live in the Panopticon. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis (Flickr)

Shopping Sunday: A Great Yoga Rug

As many friends know, I often do yoga, four or more times each week. The style I practice involves a very hot room and a lot of motion — not as hot as Bikram yoga but much more energetic. Result: buckets of sweat (if you are me).

I have been on a quest to find the right implements to practice with. Yoga mats that are billed as “absorbent” get overloaded very easily, and the standard “YogiToes” towel is quickly soaked through.

Then, I saw a guy with a yoga rug and things clicked for me.

I recently purchased an inexpensive rug and all has been joy.

It’s the Yoga Accessories Cotton Yoga Rug.

The yoga rug is exactly the width of a standard yoga mat, and just about 2 inches longer. Best of all, it is absorbent as anything. I get through an entire class without needing an extra towel.

If you practice hot yoga and are looking for something that can handle the sweat, check out a yoga rug. They are inexpensive (about $25) and a joy to practice on. It feels very natural. Note that you do need a mat underneath, but even a 3mm one should do fine.

Click to see this at Amazon (affiliate link)


Five Rules To Live In Public

For some reason (an intersection between tech-geek tendencies and narcissism, no doubt), I have been an early adopter when it comes to the self-publishing elements enabled by the Web. I started blogging before the word had been coined, was an early adopter of Twitter (March 2007), Facebook, and more. The advent of the Social Web has been particularly interesting to me. I already had been “public” about my day-to-day life, writing a number of essays for publication on various aspects. But the Social Web (especially Facebook) amped things up and — as it has for many of us — forced the question: How do you present a face that is at once authentic, personal, and professional?

In other words: How do you live in public?

Recent changes announced by Facebook (“top news,” the “ticker,” “timelines”) have people quite worried about their privacy. People are worried about how they will live in public. One of the effects of the new Facebook interface is that more of what we do online is easily accessible (it was always visible, but we could pretend it wasn’t there because it was a bit buried.) Some are threatening to quit Facebook, but with 800 million users it is likely that as many people will quit as actually followed through with their threats to move to Canada if their favored presidential candidate did not win.

No, people will have to come to grips with living in public.

Over the past few years, based on trial and error, I have developed a simple set of rules that help. They are common sense, but they may be useful to you:

  1. Never assume something on a social network is truly “private.”This is the cardinal rule. Many social network services provide privacy controls. Use them, for sure, but assume they will fail. A policy change may invalidate them, the company may get purchased and the new owner will have no obligation to uphold previous privacy deals, or — most likely — you will make a mistake and make something public that you thought would be private.

    It’s like the advice communications professionals give to people when talking to reporters: Never go “off the record.” Sure, maybe you can trust the journalist you are interviewing with, but once something is in his or her notebook (or even just in their head), they might make a mistake later and forget what aspect was private.

    So, what do you do if you simply must (for creative or personal reasons) publish anonymously. It is simple: build an alternate identity and only use that identity in ways that do not connect with your current social networks. (It is easy. First, install a new Web browser that will be your “anonymous only” browser. For instance, if you use Chrome, install Firefox. Using the anonymous-only browser, set up a new email with Gmail. Use that email and the new browser to subscribe to a standalone blogging service that you do not currently use, whether it be Posterous, Tumblr, WordPress, or Blogger. Blog to your heart’s content under your alias. Never, ever interact with your anonymous material using your usual browser.)

  2. Get comfortable with your work colleagues knowing you have a life outside of the office.Once you have come to grips with the idea that “privacy” online is an illusion, everything else flows from that. Assume you are always in public. This will drive you insane unless you get over the anxiety. For many people, this anxiety centers around work colleagues. People will think less of me professionally if they see me in nonprofessional settings, people think.

    But, think about it. Do you respect your colleagues (or boss) less, after you see a photo of them bowling? I didn’t think so. Same goes for you. Unless you live a double life (in which case this blog post will not help you), it is important to accept that your work persona will coincide more with your non-work persona.

    This has been happening inexorably in the professional world for years. Yes, social networks have helped it along but it is a trend that goes beyond the computer screen. Some may dislike that you can no longer say, “It’s the weekend. No one needs to know what I do.” However, it is difficult to avoid the fact that this is true.

    What this means in practice is that you will need to get comfortable with the idea that photos of your yoga class may be visible by colleagues. (Don’t like that? See Rule 1).

  3. Choose “iconic” connections and use them as tests.The best way I have found to live with this, and to stay out of trouble, is to create icons. I have three such icons. One is a very straitlaced colleague, one is an older family member, and one is a close friend. It helps if they are Facebook friends.

    Whenever I post something, I do a gut check: What if my icons see it? If I have a problem with that, I do not post. (See Rule 1.)

    This may sound bogus, but it is truly a filter I use. I include emails in this. If I am typing it on my screen, I review it for whether it passes the icon test. I have written and then deleted many, many emails, status updates, blog posts, and chats.

  4. Learn how your sharing works on each network. Review privacy settings regularly. Monitor yourself. It is critical to really understand what you are sharing. Yes, Facebook makes changes (as do other social sharing networks). You must take the time to understand how it works. This may take longer than you wish it would — but it does not take as long as you fear it might. Take five minutes and understand the tools you use.

    Every week or two, you should review your privacy settings. This takes sixty seconds. (On Facebook, go to “Home,” and click the little down arrow in the upper right. Choose “Privacy settings.” It’s all there.)

    Most important, periodically monitor yourself. Facebook allows you to see your profile as others see it. Go to your profile (click your own name) and choose “View as…” on the upper right. Now, type in the name of one of your icons from Rule 3.

    What do you do if you see something you would rather not have available, even after all that care you’ve taken? Simple. See below, Rule 5.

  5. Do not hesitate to delete past information.This last rule is a little controversial. There is an ethos among social network users that once something is published, it should stay published. I completely disagree with that.

    What exists on your profile is a snapshot of you — make sure it is flattering. Delete with impunity.

    There are exceptions to this, but they are up to you. For instance, I am a co-founder of a blog (now a Facebook page) called Rockville Central. It is quasi-journalistic, so we do not delete or alter previous posts except in extreme cases of abuse or profanity. That is part of the deal on that site.

    In general, though, for my own individual accounts, I maintain and curate them so they represent me putting my best foot forward.

How about you? How do you live in public? Do you have a favorite tip?
Share it in the comments!

Shopping Sunday: Two Bluetooth Accessories

Welcome to my new series, Shopping Sunday, where I review things I own (mostly) and recommend. These are all available in my Amazon Store.

Today I have two great little Bluetooth accessories to share with you. They each have made my life easier in their own little ways.

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Miccus BluBridge Mini-jack Rx

This is a little jack that you can plug into anywhere you would ordinarily plug a headphone cord. Press the button, and it pairs with the Bluetooth device of your choice. Simple to use, one button on and it turns off automatically.

Why would you want one of these? I use mine in my car. I have an “aux” jack that lets me play my iPhone tunes through my car stereo. But I hate wires dangling all over, and they often pick up interference from the car’s electrical system.

With the BluBridge, I just push the button on the little sucker and I can hear my iPhone music through my stereo, whether my phone is in my pocket or in the little cradle I use.


I can’t recommend this little device enough. It is inexpensive and does what it is supposed to.

* * * * *

Motorola S10-HD Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

I got these headphones as a birthday gift and I now use them all the time, in situations I did not expect. Not only are they good headphones, but they also have a microphone so they let me make and receive calls too.

I don’t know about you, but those little in-ear Bluetooth thingies always fall out of my ear and I can barely hear them. If I need to be on the phone for an extended period, I will slap the Motorola S10-HD set on and go. The headphone stays on no matter what my head is doing.

They also work great in the gym or on a run. The headphone is designed to withstand sweat, both the earbuds and the buttons. As with all Motorola products, it is solidly put together.


The S10-HD is another product I recommend and use all the time.

* * * * *

As always, your comments and questions are welcome. Some people disagree with my assessments, and that is cool too.

Each of these Bluetooth products is available in my Amazon Store. The prices there are the same as you get direct from Amazon, there is no extra markup.

(However, please note that these are all affiliate links.)