digital panopticon


I recently finished reading Digital Vertigo, a book by Andrew Keen with the subtitle, ‘How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us’. I’ve been trying to write a few notes at least when I finish reading a book, so that I’m not just reading book after book after book without really integrating what I’ve read. To do so for Digital Vertigo in anything approaching a comprehensive way would take waaaaaaay too long – it’s pretty jam-packed with references and metaphors and ideas supporting the main thesis from various pop-cultural angles.

So instead of trying to write anything comprehensive about the book I’m just going to summarise what I understand to be its core thesis, which happens to be a subject dear to my heart: the online social media revolution is turning our culture into one great big panopticon of suck. I picked up the book because I’m interested in internet critiques, but had no idea Keen would take his critique into the realm of the panopticon, which I love because it’s easy to hate and because it’s just a cool-sounding word.

bleak AF

This image of the Presidio Modelo prison complex in Cuba is often used to illustrate the notion of panopticon, I suppose because (apart from it being a literal instance of a panopticon-style prison) it evokes the feeling of a creepy stable for domestic beasts of burden and because it looks about as bleak as the best dystopian fiction can make us feel.

To directly quote the wonderful Wikipedia, ‘ The panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century’. The building in the above image has a central tower from which every one of those cells can be observed. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a guard in that tower or not: the idea was that if prisoners merely believed they were being observed, they would begin to self-enforce the rules imposed by the institution.

That’s a simplified interpretation of Bentham’s theory, and in Keen’s book this idea is expanded upon as an analogy for the ever-broadcasting mode of social media: by constantly revealing intimate details of ourselves, the state no longer has to engage in covert surveillance to access our data, personalities and identities – we give it away for free, in exchange for advertising-sponsered ‘free’ services.

The result is a culture where everyone feels observed all the time. One result of this culture is a tendency to self-censor and to err on the side of political correctness, which really worries me – the importance of free speech and free thought cannot be emphasized enough, of course, and when we inhibit this freedom ourselves because we’re unconsciously worried that our icky-shadow thoughts might reveal us to be horrible people to the audience we’re trying to impress with our selfies and travel photos, there is no longer any need to fear state-side suppression, because we repress all that nasty shit ourselves.

I rarely use social media these days, largely because I had begun to feel something suss about it. So perhaps I was the perfect audience for a book like this – because I’m a malcontent and latent dissenter, this book took me to the heart of fears about the internet I hadn’t even really unpacked.

It’s a decent read, even if the writing starts to feel a bit dry and journalistic at times (when he’s not throwing in annoying scene descriptions to make the writing more warm but which just feel forced and over-written), and there are loads of tendrils into the internet in the form of reference links if you want to pursue the subject into the rabbit hole.