stem: andrew keen
titel: the panopticon
bron: the internet is not the answer
‘On Tuesday I woke up to find myself on page 3 of the Daily Mail,’ wrote a yount Englishwoman named Sophie Gadd in December 2013. ‘That may be one of the worst ways to start the day, after falling out of bed or realizing you’ve run out of milk. My appearance was not the result of taking my clothes off, but the consequence of a Twitter Storm.’
A final-year history and politics undergraduate at the University of York, Gadd had inadvertently become part of a Twitter storm when, while on vacation in Berlin, she tweeted a painting of the eighteenth-century Russian czarina Catherina the Great from the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. In her tweet, Gadd suggested that the face in the painting, completed in 1794 by the portrait painter Johann Baptist Lampi, had an uncanny resemblance to that of the British prime minister David Cameron.
‘Within hours,’ Gadd explains, ‘it had been retweeted thousands of times,’ with the tweet eventually becoming a major news story in both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. ‘This experience has certainly taught me a few things about viral social media,’ Gadd says, including the observations – which have already been made by many other critics, including Dave Eggers in The Circle, his 2013 fictional satire of data factories like Google and Facebook – that ‘the Internet is very cynical’ and ‘nothing is private.’
Gadd’s experience was actually extremely mild. Unlike other innocents caught up in an all-too-public tweet storm, she didn’t lose her job or have her reputation destroyed by a vengeful online mob or land up in jail. The same month, for example, that Sophie Gadd woke up to find herself on page 3 of the Daily Mail, a PR executive named Justine Sacco tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!’ Sacco published it as she was about to board a twelve-hour flight from London to Cape Town. By the time Sacco arrived in South Africa, she had only been retweeted three thousand times but had become such a source of global news that the paparazzi were there to snap her image as she stumbled innocently off her plane. Labeled the Internet’s public enemy number one for her stupid tweet, Sacco lost her job and was even accused of being a ‘f****** idiot’ by her own father. Sacco will now forever be associated with this insensitive but hardly criminal tweet. Such is the nature of the power of the Internet.
‘When you only have a small number of followers, Twitter can feel like and intimate group of pub friends,’ Sophie Gadd notes about a social web that is both unforgetting and unforgiving. ‘But it’s not. It’s no more private than shouting your conversations through a megaphone in the high street.’
The dangers of the crystal republic predate George Orwell’s 1984 and twentieth-century totalitarianism. They go back to the enlightened despotism of Catherina II of Russia, the subject of Johann Baptist Lampi’s portrait hanging in Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum, the David Cameron look-alike painting that had landed Sophie Gadd on page 3 of the Daily Mail.
The Italian-born Lampi hadn’t been the only late-eighteenth-century European to go to Russia to enjoy Catherine the Great’s largesse. Two Englisch brothers, Samual and Jeremy Bentham, also spent time there gainfully employed by Catherine’s autocratic regime. Samual worked for Count Grigory Potemkin, one of Catherine’s many lovers, whose name has been immortalized for his ‘Potemkin villages’ of fake industrialization he built to impress her. Potemkin gave Bentham the job of managing Krichev, his hundred-square-mile estate on the Polish border that boasted fourteen thousand male serfs. And it was here that Samuel and his brother Jeremy, who joined him in 1786 in Krichev and is best known today as the father of the ‘greates happiness’ principle, invented the idea of what they called the ‘Panopticon,’ or the ‘Inspection House.’
While Jeremy Bentham – who happened to have graduated from the same Oxford college as Tim Berners-Lee – is now considered the author of the Panopticon, he credits his brother Samuel with its invention. ‘Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the poor law not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!’ Jeremy Bentham wrote triumphantly in a letter from Krichev to describe this new idea.
What Jeremy Bentham called a ‘simple idea in Architecture’ reflected his brother’s interest in disciplining the serfs on Potemkin’s Krichev estate. Borrowing from the Greek myth of Panoptes, a giant with a hundred eyes, the Panopticon – intended to house a large institution like a prison, a school, or a hospital – was a circular structure designed to house a single watchman to observe everyone in the building. This threat of being watched, Jeremy Bentham believed, represented ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.’ The Panopticon was a ‘vividly imaginative’ fusion of architectural form with social purpose, the architectural historian Robin Evans explains. And this purpose was discipline. The more we imagined we were being watched, Jeremy and Samuel Benthan imagined, the harder we would work and the fewer rules we would break. Michel Foucault thus described the Pantopticon as a ‘cruel, ingenious cage.’ It was ‘a microcosm of Benthamite society,’ according to one historian, and ‘an existential realization of Philosophical Radicalism,’ according to another.
As the founder of Philosophical Radicalism, a philosophical school better known today as utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham saw human beings as calculating machines driven by measurable pleasure and pain. Society could be best managed, Bentham believed, by aggregating all these pleasures and pains in order to determine the greatest collective happiness. In the words of the British legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart, Bentham was a ‘cost-benefit expert on the grand scale.’ And the nineteenth-century Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle criticized Bentham as a philosopher focused on ‘counting up and estimating men’s motives.’ Half a century before his compatriot Charles Babbage invented the first programmable computer, Bentham was already thinking about human beings as calculating machines. And the Panopticon – which he spent much of his life futilely trying to build – is a ‘simple idea in Architecture’ that enables everything and everyone to be watched and measured.
The establishment of a Bentham-style electronic panopticon, fused with his utilitarian faith in the quantification of society, is what is so terrifying about twenty-first-century networked society. We are drifting into a Benthamite world in which everything – from our fitness to what we eat to our driving habits to how long and how hard we work – can be profitably quantified by companies like Google’s smart home device manufacturer Nest, which is already building a lucrative business managing the electricity consumption of consumers on behalf of energy utilities. And with its Gross National Happiness Index and its secret experiments to control our moods, Facebook is even resurrecting Benthams’s attempt to quantify our pleasure and pain.
In an electronic panopticon of 50 billion intelligent devices, a networked world where privacy has become a priviliege of the wealthy, it won’t just be our televisions, our smartphones, or our cars that will be watching us. This is John Lanchester’s ‘new kind of human society,’ a place where everything we do and every place we go can be watched and turned into personal data – a commodity that EU consumer commissioner Meglena Kuneva describes as the ‘new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world.’
‘Is the Internet now just one big human experiment?’ asked the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor in response to July 2014 revelations about emotion-manipulation experiments conducted by Facebook and by the dating site OkCupid. In the future, I’m afraid, the answer to Gillmor’s question will be yes. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci warns about this infinitely creepy networked world, big data companies like Facebook and OkCupid ‘now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams.’
Such nudging and shapings – particularly for dating – isn’t necessarily new, argues the Financial Times’ Christopher Caldwell. But in the pre-Internet past, he notes, this has been done by outside authorities – particularly parents, communities, and religious bodies. ‘The difference,’ Caldwell notes, between OkCupid’s experiment and parent and religious groups, ‘is that these groups actually loved the young people they were counselling, had a stake in ensuring things did not go wrong, would help as best they could if things did, and were not using the young lovers strictly as a means of making money.’
We will be observed by every unloving institution of the new digital surveillance state – from Silicon Valley’s big data companies and the government to insurance companies, health-care providers, the police, and ruthlessly Benthamite employers like Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, with its scientifically managed fulfillment centers where the company watches over its nonunionized workforce. Big data companies will know what we did yesterday, today, and, with the help of increasingly accurate predictive technology, what we will do tomorrow. And – as in what Christopher Caldwell calls OkCupid’s ‘venal’ experiment – the goal of these big data companies will be strictly to make money from our personal data rather than use it as a public service.