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)

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