. Data . And the Panopticon .

Technologies once detached are now converging, using new programs and systems with user friendly features. Consequently, it is increasingly difficult to manage everyday life without interacting with forms and systems of technology, familiar and highly present. Thus we have evolved to the popular belief that ‘you don’t exist unless you appear on Google’ (Raley 2013).

Most of us remain unaware of the huge mass of data we generate through each action – data that is stored, analysed, processed, and used by corporations, companies and other interested parties. In my mind, this echoes Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ (Orwell 2004), causing concern that there are very few and very limited laws which make data surveillance activities illegal, ‘or which enable regulatory agencies, or the public to sue transgressing organisations.’ (Clarke 1994)

Issues respective to data and information technology are problematic to solve as each are surrounded by a myriad of theories, debates and dialogue. For example, Jeff Jarvis argues that technology makes it impossible to control who will have access to one’s private information. Therefore individuals and society should abandon the idea of privacy altogether – ‘communication and empathy would be strengthened as humans are better informed, share information, and help each other.’ (Jarvis 2011) However, like Orwell’s 1984, I can only envision a post-privacy society as totalitarian.

Orwell’s 1984 extends the panopticon to encompass society – it is important to note that my use of panopticon relates to Foucault’s definition rather than Bentham’s conceptualisation of the ’roundhouse’ panopticon prison. In this context, the panopticon relates to surveillance – ‘one is totally seen, without ever seeing’ (Foucault 1995). Subsequently, the panopticon is presently associated with the potential to harm, exploit, take advantage, or discriminate against individuals, ‘impos(ing) identities from an authoritative point of view’ (Hoven & Vermaas 2007).

It has evolved a long way from being hailed the ‘utopian vision machine’ (Virilio 1994).

Whilst the Panopticon has limited usefulness in ‘understanding the complexities and nuances of contemporary surveillance’ (Boyne 2000), it does serve as an interesting visual to explore the balance of modern power relations. As Foucault points out – new information technology, increasingly unobservable or unsupervisable, ‘automatizes and disindividualizes power’ (Foucault 1995). Power that is lost as citizens and given to unseen corporations – For more detail Joey addresses this loss of power over privacy specifically when dealing with large corporations in blog post ‘Big Data: Corporations and User’

It is perhaps not surprising to discover that panoptic schemes tend to produce resistance rather than discipline (Alford 2000).

 Back in the 1980’s Shoshana Zuboff conducted an interesting experiment in the workforce to analyse the effect on power relationships when workers are introduced to informating technology. The results were as follows:

– Managers finding found they could discover everything you did ‘except for what went on in your head’ (Zuboff 1984), feared an erosion of authority as computers provided workers greater access to information

– Social relationships lost power as work became wholly centred on efficiency ratings

  • Workers, fearing scrutiny by their superiors, logged into their managers account and manipulated data entry to ensure good efficiency ratings.

Which unfortunately begs the question – in present day, how much has the ‘ambiguity of reciprocal interactions and subjective quality of behavioural data’ (Zuboff 1984) been replaced by a ‘black and white’ mentality.


Alford, C. F. 2000, ‘What Would It Matter if Everything Foucault Said about Prisons Was Wrong?’, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, pp. 125–46.

Boyne, R. 2000, ‘Post-Panopticism’, Economy and Society, Vol. 29, is. 2, pp. 285–30

Clarke, R. 1994, ‘Dataveillance: Delivering 1984’, Green, L. & Guinery, R. (eds), Framing Technology: Society, Choice and Change, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 117 – 130

Foucault, M. 1995, Discipline and punish the birth of the prison, 2nd ed, Vintage Books, New York

Hoven, J. V. D. & Vermaas, P. E., 2007, ‘Nano-technology and privacy: on continuous surveillance outside the panopticon’, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Volume. 32, 3, pp. 283-97

Jarvis, J. 2011, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, Simon and Schuster, New York

Orwell, G. 2004, 1984, 4th ed, Penguin, UK

Raley, R. 2013, ‘Dataveillane and Countervailance’, Gitelman, L. (ed), “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron, MIT Press, Cambridge pp. 121-145

Virilio, P. 1994, The Vision Machine, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Zuboff, S. 1984, In the Age of the Smart Machine, Basic Books, Inc., New York.


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