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Social Panopticism

Today’s technology has successfully triumphed over time and space. The enabled ability to communicate no matter wherever we are and no matter the time of day has allowed for people from all over the world to share snippets of their lives. Their shared message is then received by somebody else somewhere in the world and the receiver becomes an observer. Then because today’s technology has allowed for feedback through likes or comments or simply statistics of views the observer becomes a witness. This is the concept that drives social media; this is the concept that gives social media an addictive nature. Social media can be compared to animal at the zoo. Before feedback was possible it was a shark, people who visit the shark tank can’t interact with the shark, sure they can admire it, fear it, whatever. But the shark doesn’t know, the shark is unaware of the attention or lack of attention it gets. Now social media has evolved into an animal such as a sea lion, when it jumps through the water it gets rewarded, when it follows a command it gets applause. The incentives of attention and rewards keep them running which can be said for social media as well, and that’s the difference between an observer and a witness.
I think it’s safe to say that we are all no longer observers but are rather now a generation of witnesses and the thing about witnessing is that it often comes with surveillance. A famous quote by Marcus Aurelius says
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”.
I think the second half of that quote is rather applicable to today’s social media. Everything we see is calculated by someone else, they construct the perspective that they wish for their audience to perceive. This goes along a famous social theory that was popularized by Michel Foucault called panopticism.  Panopticism is a theory about surveillance that proposes the perfect prison called the Panopticon . The prison is a circular design that revolves around a watch tower in the center, prisoners can all view the watch tower but they cannot see the guard inside, and therefore the prisoners would not be able to predict when they were being inspected and the mental uncertainty would cause them to self-discipline. Although our witnessing is only recreational and not severe as the Panopticon suggests, in away social media has formed a type of Panopticon. People who are posting images or posts on the internet are aware that people will be viewing their content, but they do not know who, so they filter their displayed content into what they think is an acceptable perspective or reputation for the public to know about them. This is a form of self-disciplining and it goes back to how everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Panopticon Design
So we have this now. We have a generation of witnesses. We have a presence of self-consciousness in our social media. We have a very passive system of surveillance installed into our everyday social lives. So what’s next? I think in order to see how our social media habits change its important to see how our social media is changing. We have witnessing and surveillance because we have new platforms that show feedback and I think the future for these platforms would be hand free devices. Moving away from our touchscreen phones and tablets to voice activated devices, many of our devices today already have voice command, so it seems most plausible that we will be in a society completely free of physical commands. Today we already have a device like that, but it has not been popularized yet because of the pricing, limited production, and need for further refinements, which is Google Glass . Google Glass is a wearable computer that displays information in a format similar to the smartphone and is accessed with natural language voice commands. With Google Glass’s ability to capture an image or video with the simple voice command I think that the idea of surveillance on social media will migrate into our physical world as well. With smartphones, to take a picture there is still a quite obvious motion of holding your device up for x amount of time. Now with Google Glass, it is possible for someone to be taking a photo or video all day with little to no signs of it happening.  Last month in honor of Woman’s Day, Google Glass released a video of a woman filming her entire day through Google Glass. In order to raise awareness of domestic violence Google Glass ended the narrator’s seemingly ordinary day with a disturbing act of violence.
If and when hands free devices such as Google Glass become mainstream and widespread, there is always a possibility that someone is filming or taking a picture at any point in the day with absolutely no indication of it happening. The Panopticon migrates into our daily lives, any one person can be the guard in the lighthouse and we are the prisoners monitoring our every actions. It’s also interesting that today, the users of social media are the witnesses and the social media is the inspector but in a hands free device future the users of social media are the inspectors while the devices and social media become the witnesses.
Surveillance has been ever present through our technological lives, especially with cameras on practically all our devices that can be accessed by other people, and the internet’s ability to preserve information forces our social habits to become filtered. In Avi Rubin’s TED talk about computer security, he describes how every device can be hacked. Some case scenarios he talked about people could hack into the microphone of a car and listening in on the conversation in the car, or hacking into the car GPS in order to track the location of the car. Private lives are easily tapped into, yet we are completely unaware of it. And although surveillance does induce some fears, in some ways I still think the future of a Panopticon has its positives. The idea of possibly being held accountable for actions you do in the physical world might be more incentive for people to do good. People might become more aware of their daily actions and do good deeds, even simple ones like hold a door, or give their seat up on the subway. 


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