The Digital Panopticon
In 1999 I created an art project as part of my “digital technology and society” degree at U.C. San Diego. The official Research Scholar program there allowed seniors to make presentations or papers based on their field of study, so I applied some of Foucault’s theories to the world of digital interfaces. Specifically, i found that his ideas about the Panopticon, created by our favorite utilitarian philosopher, Jeremey Bentham, worked inside the digital realm. Each image is supposed to address the question, “Is power articulated through interface design?” We understand that power can be articulated through conversation, through gender and race, and through lots of parts of society. But what about interface design? It’s been decades since I wrote this, but every so often I see things on twitter like my friend Soufron posting a link to a new digital panopticon article. Bad ass.
“Without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, power acts directly on individuals, it gives power of mind over mind”
-Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish
“Hyper-reality is what you get when a Panopticon evolves to the point where it can convince everyone that it doesn’t exist; people continue to believe they are free, although their power has disappeared “
– Rheingold, Howard, The Virtual Community, 1998.
If power in the Foucauldian sense does not require any physical instrument, and our expression increasingly takes place within the digital environment, then the question arises – “Is power articulated through interface design?” The idea is that elements of observation in a prison are similar to the place we all occupy in consumer culture which is also similar to the place we occupy on the internet. That’s a place of being observed, and in many cases craving that observation, but not understanding what impact that has on our lives. That’s the most interesting thing about comparing prison observation.