Friday, February 4, 2011

The age of panopticon or a village community?

Year 2010 has already been named the year that privacy died. During the past couple of days, I have read a couple of interesting articles which look at this statement from two different perspectives. I would agree with both - however, the topic is such an interesting and complex one that there are definitely no simple answers to be found.

First, Josh Rose wrote on Mashable about social media bringing back our grandparents' values. He points out that with the usage of tools such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr , blogs etc. we are pretty much going back into an era where previous generations lived, sharing their stories and experiences in a small village community. Everybody was aware of what was happening in other peoples' lives, and caring for others was an essential part of interaction in close-knit communities. Rose mentions how updating his Facebook status made even a local coffee shop owner aware that he was planning for a trip to Las Vegas. "Some may find this intimacy alarming. I found it oddly comforting.", he writes and continues: "I bet this is what it was like for my grandparents, in a time when communities were close-knit; when someone knew if you were going on a trip or noticed if you didn’t show up somewhere."


Rose also points out that in-between us and out grandparents, there has been a different generation. According to Rose, the culture of our parents’ generation became somewhat more escapist; focusing more to individualism than sharing. He emphasizes that the explosion of social media has increased transparency between different generations, and also made expression of emotions more accepted.

Andrew Keen takes a different point of view in his article published in March 2011 issue of Wired.
He uses the concept of panopticon, invented by Jeremy Benthan at the dawn of the industrial age, to describe the transparent digital world where we live, share and communicate openly. The idea of Bentham was to create a physical network of small rooms, where there would be nowhere for anyone to hide, to improve the management of social institutions such as prisons. The person observed would constantly be observed, even when he does not notice that.

Keen argues that what makes our digital panopticon different from Bentham's vision is that what we once saw as a prison is now considered a playground; what was considered pain is today viewed as pleasure. The age of the great exhibition is being replaced by the age of great exhibitionism. We are doing all this voluntarily, as social media visionaires put it: we are constantly willing to share more and more of ourselves.


"The result is a panopticon in which privacy is relegated like an historical artefact", Keen writes. "Today's digital social network is a trap. Today's cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren't naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone."

It is easy to agree with both of these contradictory viewpoints. Yes, we are definitely living in a huge, virtual panopticon. One of the main characteristics of this panopticon is voluntarity: in most cases, users are willingly sharing their experiences, memories, emotions and dreams. As humans, we need understanding and an audience for our existence. We need listeners, readers, comments, reactions, likes, retweets, understanding - we need some response. And in order to get that, most of us have made a conscious choice to give up some privacy, assuming the positives to outweigh negatives.


Social media is quickly becoming the most dominant and important source of socio-cultural data in our times. Researchers such as Dan Zarrella have already done a great work to explore e.g. the science of retweets  and to invent a tool called TweetPsych to generate psychological profiles of Twitter users or lists based on the contents of their tweets. By sharing content, we tell the world who we are, and what matters for us. As Brian Solis  puts it, everything we post into social media is building our social currency.

The last sentence of Keen's essay is interesting and thought-provoking. Is it really true that we aren't naturally social beings? Is human happiness really about being left alone? From a sociological point of view, I would dare to question that. The history of mankind shows us that humans really are social animals - we need each others to share, communicate, encourage, engage and take care of others. The challenge of our digital panopticon era is: can we find the balance between transparency and privacy, between sharing and losing? Not easily, I would suppose. There will definitely be many compromises where we need to go the hard way - both as individuals and virtual communities. Still, it is the only way to go.

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