All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy.
--Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, 1977
A message popped up in September 9 last year for those lucky enough to see it. It was scripted by a self-made millionaire (or billionaire?), one of those flip-flop wearing college drop-outs Marc Zuckerman:
When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better. I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with. I think a lot of the success we've seen is because of these basic principles.
It was also an apology. He had failed to explain the new features of his networking system to subscribers. He was merely ‘trying to provide [them] with a stream of information about your social world.’ What were these features? The ‘Media-Feed’; the ‘News-Feed’. We could effectively chart the everyday lives of fellow human beings on the network. One could see, in chronological fashion, instant updates across the entire network one was a member of. You could see when a new ‘friend’ was added, what time it took place, which date it occurred on.
Then there is the ‘poke’ facility. It is one Zuckerman has been kind enough to offer his users. In most cultures, it is an affront. There is a sexual sting in the statement. My personal space is violated; my dignity is affronted by the conceit of familiarity: do you really think you know me? My virtual space, however, is another matter. My comfort zone is global (at least across networks). Anyone who is part of this system can see me; can ‘poke’ me.
The Facebook facility keeps company with other public forums where information about individuals is shared. Myspace and Xanga – programs which espionage agencies would have saved millions had they pioneered them during the 19th and 20th centuries – jostle on the cyberspace platform for paramountcy. Users of the facility have complained (some did even before the Zuckerman statement): Facebook displays too little, cordoning off access to certain members; or, Facebook has become too informative.
This year, Facebook became saviour – survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre ‘facebooked’ (a now common and obscene verb) fellow students telling them they were ‘OK’. ‘Facebook saved me’ became a catch-cry. It is a matter of time before Facebook messages appear in lieu of flowers at a funeral.
Three decades ago, Big Brother was the enemy. Now, with the proclaimed defeat of ‘totalitarian’ communism, the surveillance culture has moved into private life with our consent. The spawn of Solzhenitsyn’s Grand Strategist or Orwell’s Big Brother are dead; we have nothing to fear. Our quibble is which surveillance feature we want. Big Brother is an invitee – and not merely in the capsule of human drudgery and slime called ‘the Big Brother house’. On the contrary, we like surveillance – take the British as an example. We like accountability, so we like people watched. We are watched to protect us from our more sinister motives.
So, employers now look at Facebook. They even issue advertisements on it. They hire and in some cases fire on the basis of a Facebook profile. Universities scan the profiles of their students.
Facebook, Zuckerman assures us, issues its own privacy controls. We have choices as to what to put on our profile. Apparently, the democratic preserve is maintained: we can choose, so we are free. It is the classic American exposition of the human condition of freedom: ‘As long as you can vote, we are free’. ‘As long as you can decide what to disclose, you are free.’ ‘I am free because I can adopt the Fifth Amendment.’ ‘I am free to profile myself on Facebook.’ We do not have to let our political views be known; we do not have to disclose our political interests, but it is advisable to do so. We do not need to know if we like men or women, but of course, we want to.
Facebook has ushered in a revolution, and a failed one at that. It is much like the panopticon – ‘all-seeing’, that surveillance device the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered in the nineteenth century for penal reform. Zuckerman shares more with Bentham than he realises: a desire to improve the quotient of pleasure in society; a desire to maximise the network for the common good. As Bentham commences his study on penal reform, he calls his device the panopticon ‘or the inspection house’.
In 1975, Michel Foucault added his gloss to Bentham’s Panopticon Notes. For Foucault, the major effect of the Panopticon is: ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’ The prison inmate ‘is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.’
There are subtle differences. Members of the networks have become inspectors, just as they have become prisoners. People do ‘communicate’ with each other. It is a brilliant seduction: to give the means of surveillance to everybody in order to legitimise it. We see but we are also seen (at stages). We relinquish ourselves to others, but have the luxury of indulging in everyone else’s surrender of secrecy.
Perhaps it is time to return to personals that do not reek of voyeuristic profiling and ‘pokes’. Consult the London Review of Books instead: ‘I celebrated by fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year, I’m hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake.’
This article first appeared on Counterpunch, August 7, 2007.