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The Panoptic Con – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (1)

1. A History of Too Much Information

Modern technology allows for the accumulation and utilization of information on a historically unprecedented scale. While organizations in previous times – whether positively symbolized by a massive library, or negatively represented by secret police  — were able to assemble troves of informational treasures it was a challenge to make easy use of all of this information. Complex (particularly to the uninitiated) classification systems were needed to sensibly layout a library and even more complex systems were required to set out the informational holdings of watchful governmental agencies. Electronic technologies (particularly those of the “computer” family) allowed for a great shifting in the way that individuals and organizations dealt with vast quantities of information as the computer’s search hastily (and more efficiently) replaced the card catalog and filing cabinet. It was as the linguist George Lakoff stated (in conversation with Iaian A. Boal [“Body, Brain, and Communication,” in Resisting the Digital Life] italics in original):

“the new “information” out there is not really knowable. It’s not information for you—or for another human being. There’s only so much one can comprehend.” (Brook & Boal, 123)

All of the information which had once required so much human effort to make useful was brought under the aegis of ever-more capable computers that could process through information and draw out connections with greater speed than even the most dexterous human minds. As more information seemed to be being created the computer served as the perfect dance partner, able to capture, catalog, and collate all of these bits and button taps and make them useful. If people were awash in information glut than the computer was able to take on the gluttony without visually fattening (indeed computers were getting smaller [and yet more powerful] by the year). The connections between various computerized systems strengthened the entire informational infrastructure as people’s personalities (or proxies thereof) became further data for digital representation: a person’s “friends,” “likes,” search history, shopping habits, site visits, music collection, rental history, and so forth all became more than just moments in a person’s life – they became information. And though the language of advertising spoke of all of this information in a “cloud,” it was not a radiant sun and blue sky behind it.

When it came to information the new technologies promised a better living through their all-seeing (or panoptic if you will [pan as in “all,” optic as in “seeing”]) prowess. In exchange for offering up ever more information we were promised a cornucopia of technologically enabled pleasures: better search results, better sales pitches, advertisements tailored just for us, systems that knew what we wanted before even we knew, better security, protection from our (and our nation’s) enemies, and a life made better and easier for us through our supplying of the informational goods to technology. We rarely even needed to do much, perhaps click “I agree” on a few terms of use, but beyond that all we had to do was continue acting normally while our information was vacuumed up; that and maintain our trust that the all-seeing systems would not turn our world into a prison like Bentham’s (or Foucault’s) panopticon.

Yet fears of a prison are overstated, the problem is that the trustworthy all-seeing entity was always rubbish, in trusting in it we collectively fell victim, not prisoners in a panopticon, but the cheated victims of a panoptic con.

2. The Panopticon and the Panoptic Con

The model prison panopticon of Bentham’s design was a round prison at the center of which stood a watchtower, all of the prison cells featured a wall that was exposed to this watchtower and thus prisoners never knew whether or not they, at any given moment, were being watched. More than a century later Michel Foucault pushed this concept beyond the prison walls and into the broader context of society to describe systems in which consciousness of being constantly watched by some force of authority led to a sort of self imposed conformity wherein the power system was able to reinforce its might not through a visible oppressive force but through a silent watchful eye. While the multiplication of surveillance cameras and tracking technologies has certainly made many see continuous merit in the idea of the panopticon it is only a cousin to today’s Panoptic Con.

The Panoptic Con is the process by which people are encouraged to place trust in “all-seeing” technological systems that promise a “good life” while hiding that there is a very real price. This cost ranges from the seemingly simple “loss of privacy” and disappearance of the “right to anonymity” to the slow freezing out of society of those unwilling or unable to technologically participate. While a panopticon may have its roots in a prison or the thought of a totalitarian state, the Panoptic Con has less interest in political power and instead concerns itself with the smiling-sticker-price of the corporate state. World governments may be willing participants in the Panoptic Con but they are at best junior partners to the corporate firms like Google, Facebook, Apple, and so forth. The tools used by the Panoptic Con are not the overt statements of watchfulness characterized by the closed-circuit-camera but the quiet controlling techniques hidden within seeming innocuous devices. If the panopticon is a camera through which a police officer is watching than the Panoptic Con is the smartphone capturing thousands of pieces of information and sending them back to the big data hive mind for computation.

Part of what is at work here is a historical shift in the tools used by power in exorcizing control. In modern mass society a level of non-conformity has been recognized not as a threat but as the very health of the system, enabling individuals certain spaces to “blow off steam” at the system serves as an excellent way to overall strengthen that same system. Thus the Panoptic Con cares little for the seemingly oppositional acts of individuals so long as all of these acts occur in a context where they can be indexed and properly tracked. It is ultimately of no concern to Google whether all of a person’s Google searches are for anti-Google sites, what matters is the searching, likewise Facebook cares not if users create anti-capitalist (or pro-privacy) groups on the site so long as they are being created on the site. The Panoptic Con does not seek to create a horde of sullen eyed conformist clones, but a more problematic state in which individuals believe they are avoiding conformity even as their actions all conform with the power system. Individual acts of eccentricity collapse into complacent conformism so long as they all make use of the same technics.

Here the Panoptic Con and the panopticon show their historical break. With roots in the utilitarian philosophy of the 1800s and re-imagined in the age of totalitarian ideologies (with Foucault) the panopticon is an idea that seems to work particularly well in a context of police states wherein citizens know that they are being watched. The Panoptic Con is a more modern version wherein political power has been weakened by the strength of corporate power and wherein citizens have become so accustomed to “sharing” all of their information that they have stopped wondering who might be watching. Indeed the switch from “watching” (what the repressive force does) to “sharing” (what an individual does) is central to this system’s success. Thus, the Panoptic Con fits within the schema of “inverted totalitarianism” as described by the philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Incorporated, which is:

“a new type of political system, seemingly one driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on “private” media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.” (Wolin, 44)

Whereas the jackboot and deprivation of a totalitarian society may plant the seeds for its own undoing the “inverted totalitarianism” which Wolin describes is a wiser form of authority, one that recognizes that if the boot on a citizen’s throat appears as a fluffy slipper that the force may go unnoticed. It is further a system in which the power once vested in the political powers has been displaced and given over to corporate forces that maintain the game show of popular politics as a tool to keep people convinced that they do have some say in what goes on, even as the continual total dysfunction of the political system teaches citizens not to get their hopes up. Indeed, Wolin notes:

“inverted totalitarianism thrives on a politically demobilized society, that is, a society in which the citizens, far from being whipped into a continuous frenzy by the regime’s operatives, are politically lethargic.” (Wolin, 64)

Changes can be admitted herein but they are all of the type that do not challenge the power structure. Thus within inverted totalitarianism it is possible for there to be some broadening of social rights (Gay marriage, moderately less racism, appearance of religious toleration, slight environmental changes); however, this only serves to hide how little change is allowed for within the economic sphere.

The Panoptic Con is the technological tool par excellence for inverted totalitarianism, as it provides for the demobilized political actor to remain a fully engaged actor within a society, or at least it allows for them to continue to participate in a way that is in accordance with the needs of the new state of affairs. If inverted totalitarianism does not require citizens to help truly run a nation it still needs the image of an “active citizenry” for its own propaganda and the Panoptic Con provides the space for citizens to act wherein all of their actions conform to the systemic demand that all of their actions be ready for monitoring.

The essential aspect of the Panoptic Con is less the “all seeing” aspect than it is the “con” aspect (con as in trick, or  “confidence game”). For it is the reversal of the promises of the technological society that serve to cause true harm. The problem in this context is not in and of itself technology but the fact that in conforming with the uses of these technologies people render all of their actions easily monitored and calculated by the corporate/political forces of the day. Police infiltrators in radical groups are barely needed when it is simpler to pull up a list of members in a “radical” Facebook group, or find out who has bought a given book on Amazon, see who is searching for what on Google, or see who is saying what on Twitter. We are promised a better, easier, more information rich life through the “all seeing” technologies but what the Panoptic Con hides (the “Con”) is that what it is “all seeing” in regards to is not the information we’re interested in, but the information about us.

Through the technological trickery of the Panoptic Con we are led to believe that we are moving in fresh and free directions, when all that we are truly doing is continuing to participate in the power structure. The Panoptic Con is hiding the dire price between numerous layers of shiny toys, as:

“The main reason for believing that the future might bring material improvement and social stability is these objectives suit the needs of a conqueror concerned to avoid actually governing conquered land.” (Wolin, 49)

And in our current times this conqueror has ceased to be an imperial political power, but rather a fierce corporate apparatus (consider the case of Google). And while Wolin may have spoken of inverted totalitarianism he noted that the system could easily flip, with the word “inverted” vanishing and only “totalitarianism” remaining.

If such should occur, it will be the Panoptic Con that acts as the storm trooper and the secret police.

3. The Panoptic Con in action and responses of inaction

It is difficult to know exactly the quantity of our interactions with modern technologies that are governed by the logic of the Panoptic Con, and in this way this confidence game is akin to Jacques Ellul’s notion of “technique” (the logic behind the drive to efficiency which informs the technology but is distinct from it). Yet moments in which the technological huckster pulls us into this game are on display in hundreds of instances in our daily lives. Instances of the Panoptic Con becoming visible are almost too numerous to list exhaustively, but a partial list would include: when a search engine permanently logs your search history, when a social network quickly changes privacy settings, when a mobile app makes use of information you were not aware it would access, when your e-mail account reads your e-mails so as to target advertisements at you, when a “self destruct” photo app turns out to not really delete images, when your site traffic is sold to third parties, when a giant company warns of its own authoritarian potential while shrugging, when a company builds up consumers trust in its “progressive” image whilst systematically gaming the tax system, when a “user agreement” is held up as an example o “we warned you,” when a company introduces a new device that will dramatically alter the way that people move and interact in physical spaces….and of course last but certainly not least, when the information gathered in the previously listed instances (and others) are turned over to the likes of the National Security Agency in what seems to be not only a breach of trust in technology but also a breakdown of law.

Yet, and this may be the key, resistance to the “con” is often difficult to locate or to express. To a jarring extent use of modern technology has served to inure people to the constant switch that the Panoptic Con pulls upon people. At this point few are truly surprised when a social network randomly changes privacy settings or makes use of all of the gathered information for purposes of a new type of search engine, likewise a loss of privacy is frequently viewed as the price we pay for enjoying newer shinier toys. Even learning of the ways in which governments (the panoptic entities of the panopticon of yore) are using the Con built into modern devices as a way to gather huge quantities of data on unsuspecting citizens has sparked a reaction of tragic-comic proportions as people simultaneously express outrage but tend to express this outrage by using the very devices that enabled the crime as a megaphone to amplify their discontent. Thus their discontent is amplified, and simultaneously it is easily noted by those against whom this very discontent is directed.

The promise upon which the con relies for success is upon keeping people’s eyes focused on some shining horizon wherein, if we can weather the storm in which our privacy and right to anonymity may be cast overboard, we will be able to live in a magnificent technological utopia. Yet by employing and hiding such trickery as the Panoptic Con our technologies make us unable to fully participate in our own societal lives and continually diminishes critical responses as evidence of backwardness or worse “Luddism.” The Panoptic Con thrives on technical hope and critical foolishness, as Lewish Mumford wrote (in Technics and Civilization):

“the desire to use the new marvels of technics…was not in the main guided by critical discernment: people agreed that inventions were good, whether or not they actually provided benefits, just as they agreed that child-bearing was good, whether the offspring proved a blessing to society or a nuisance.” (Mumford, 53)

The Panoptic Con can only invoke the blessing, keeping attention focused on this as there are in fact many blessings that come with modern technology but these are blessings that can be swiftly flipped into curses once we fall to our knees to worship our new technical god (curses ranging from “a nuisance” to a legal noose). What makes the Panoptic Con fully insidious is that (Mumford again):

“Lacking a cooperative social intelligence and good-will, our most refined technics promises no more for society’s improvement than an electric bulb would promise to a monkey in the midst of a jungle.” (Mumford, 215)

And yet this is the very hope of those who deploy the Panoptic Con to make use of technology in such away as for it dazzle us into an uncritical stupor. Thus, to modify Mumford’s above quotation, it is as if the electric bulb is on and the monkey in the jungle is too mesmerized by the light to be able to contemplate anything beyond the glow. So too are we so awed by the glare of our screens that we can forget that as we watch the screen it too is watching us.

The Panoptic Con is the game in which we are taken in when we unthinkingly use modern technology, it is a game in which we may see ourselves as active gamblers, but insofar as we play we are bound to continually lose; indeed the few hands that we are allowed to win are only there to ensure that we keep playing. For even if we can recognize the “con” aspect of what is at work, it does little to diminish the “Panoptic” element. This represents the true unnerving potential of the Panoptic Con that as recent events make clearer by the day that technology is tricking us, that we continually participate, viewing this not as a trick but as a tradeoff. Yet seldom do we ponder what we might be asked to trade in next.

Perhaps modern technology users think that this is actually all a reversal, that the technology’s users are really the ones using the con against itself. Thus, the problem has little to do with technology but is just a result of those currently controlling technology. There is the hope that at some point the Panoptic Con and the system that constructed it will collapse under its own weight, leaving behind the delightful toys while displacing the authoritarian whiff of the system.

It is an understandable hope. Yet it s in encouraging people to believe that they can have the benefits without the negatives, in convincing people that the technology is just a neutral party in this all, in encouraging people to remain patient through the unceasing torrent of scandals (that have ceased to be scandals in their regularity) that the Panoptic Con achieves its ultimate success.

A major triumph for the Panoptic Con is at hand: as we see it exposed before our eyes. And continue participating.

Works Cited

Brook, James & Boal Iain. Resisting the Virtual Life.  City Lights, 1995. “Body, Brain, and Communication,”

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Wolin, Sheldon. Democracy Incorporated. Princeton University Pre

About TheLuddbrarian

"I won't explain myself because I hate common sense." librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2013 by in Activism, Civil Liberties, Culture, Government, History, Philosophy, Privacy, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet and tagged , .

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