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Panopticism, Facebook, the ‘information bomb’, and Wikileaks

In previous posts, I have argued that, at this stage, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which Facebook has succeeded in exposing users to more (potential, if not probable) attention from companies marketing commodities or services than they probably anticipated, have no more than financial or economic objectives, but that the potential for extensive social control or psychological manipulation is vast.

Moreover, just as, in the panoptical prison, where inmates monitor their own behaviour (on the assumption of their constant surveillance by warders with full visual access to them), indications are that individuals are increasingly engaging in a form of “normalising” self-monitoring of behaviour via voluntary self-exposure on internet sites such as Facebook.

It is not difficult to grasp such self-monitoring in terms of the three mechanisms of disciplinary power distinguished by Foucault (“hierarchical observation”, “normalising judgment” and the “examination”, discussed in earlier posts). Posting information on oneself on Facebook in the form of selected photographs and textual descriptions of likes and dislikes regarding movies, clothes, cosmetics, friends, food, books and more, is subject to “hierarchical observation” in so far as it conforms to notions of what is “cool” (or, ironically, “hot”), that is, acceptable to, and desired by, one’s peers. In advance, therefore, it subjects itself to criteria of hierarchical observation; even the odd instance of cocking a snoot at criteria of “coolness” confirm the behavioural power (the power to affect behaviour) of the hierarchical norm in a paradoxical fashion.

The same is true, in a related manner, of “normalising judgement” and the “examination’. While Facebook is also a means for family members and friends to keep in contact, and share photographs of trips, places visited, and so on, “normalising judgement” (which probably even functions among family and friends in a keeping up with the Joneses’-fashion), operates through evaluating-judging comparisons, which have the result of setting up certain norms (of appearance and choice of merchandise and services, for instance).

It may seem counter-intuitive that “examination” should play a role here, but if one recalls the phenomenon of the “makeover” — that is, revamping one’s home, or one’s personal appearance, for the approval of one’s peers — then it is clear that Facebook participates in this process of “making visible” of individuals, and therefore also of “individualizing” in terms of standards that allow comparison (which, paradoxically, is closer to “standardisation” than to “individualisation”!).

One of the most radical assessments of Facebook, yet, is made possible by the work of Paul Virilio, in a book that was first published before Facebook even existed — which itself confirms the extent to which it is merely another development along a continuum of technical-social transformations. Virilio extends Foucault’s interpretation of the panoptical, disciplinary society with far-reaching consequences in The Information Bomb (2005) — in fact, he virtually anticipates the Wikileaks affair of 2010, as is clearly evident from the following (p. 63):

“After the first bomb, the atom bomb, which was capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter, the spectre of a second bomb is looming at the end of this millennium. This is the information bomb, capable of using the interactivity of information to wreck the peace between nations.”

What led Virilio to this insight? When June Houston installed 14 “live-cams” in her house in 1997 to transmit visual access to all the strategic domestic sites to a website, in the process enabling others to provide her with “surveillance reports” on the appearance of anything suspicious (specifically, “ghosts” that she believed were there), Virilio (p. 59) believes that one witnessed:

“ … the emergence of a new kind of tele-vision, a television which no longer has the task of informing or entertaining the mass of viewers, but of exposing and invading individuals’ domestic space … the fear of exposing one’s private life gives way to the desire to over-expose it to everyone … ”

Does this description not neatly fit Facebook and MySpace? That it is an extension of the panoptical spaces of Foucault’s disciplinary society should be evident. In fact, Virilio makes it explicit (p. 61) where he intimates that the extension of June Houston’s self-created panopticism demands “a new global optics, capable of helping a panoptical vision to appear”. Significantly, he also points out that such a vision is indispensable for a “market of the visible” to emerge.

According to Virilio (p. 60), Houston’s actions — which have since been replicated with different purposes in mind — were revolutionary, transforming the transparency of living spaces to which information television programmes have accustomed us, towards what he calls “ … a purely mediatic trans-appearance … ”, and he attributes the growth of this practice to the requirement, on the part of the globalisation of the market, that all activities and behaviour be “over-exposed” (p. 60):

“ … it requires the simultaneous creation of competition between companies, societies and even consumers themselves, which now means individuals, not simply certain categories of “target populations”. Hence the sudden, untimely emergence of a universal, comparative advertising, which has relatively little to do with publicising a brand or consumer product of some kind, since the aim is now, through the commerce of the visible, to inaugurate a genuine visual market, which goes far beyond the promoting of a particular company.”

This is seamlessly connected to what Virilio (p. 61) further sees as being part and parcel of globalisation, namely, that individuals continually observe one another comparatively. It is therefore related to the marketing value of (among other things) Facebook usage that was referred to earlier, because of the access that companies have to the comparatively displayed preferences on individuals’ Facebook pages. It is mainly for this reason that Facebook was recently (early January 2011) valued at $500 billion, given the unprecedented access that companies have to the more than 500 million Facebook users’ likes and dislikes.

Companies don’t even have to advertise comparatively any more; potential customers and clients do the advertising of their own preferences in merchandise and services on an individual basis, with ever more refined targeting of such individuals’ tastes by sellers of just about anything that may be bought, from personal services to all the consumer products available on the globalised market today.

But — to return to the Wikileaks phenomenon referred to earlier — such “interactivity of information … [could] wreck the peace between nations”, as the Wikileaks revelations have threatened to do. Which Virilio would not find surprising at all, because more than a decade ago he already quoted an erstwhile hacker-become-company-director to the effect (p. 63) that, on “ … the Internet, there is a permanent temptation to engage in terrorism, as it is easy to inflict damage with impunity”.

June Houston, the supposedly haunted American internet exhibitionist, may therefore be seen as having anticipated what Virilio (p. 67) calls “a game in which everyone inspects and watches over all others, looking for a spectre which is … haunting … the whole world — the world of business and global geopolitics”. This process has developed much further since the publication of Virilio’s book in the late 90s.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.