I recently had an interview for a job where my social science research skills were actually relevant (I know, quelle surprise). During the interview, I mentioned my participation in an ethnographic field school in Peru and that the interviewers could find the paper that I wrote about the project I conducted using a combination of my name and some specific search terms. I was rather satisfied with it, but now it seems rather naive and unpolished to me (I was a 3rd year undergrad at the time). I won’t tell you how to find the paper, but it’s really not that hard.
Anyway, I suddenly remembered that the interviewer could find this blog as well just by Googling me, and I thought, “Oh crap, have I written anything incriminating?” I felt the teensiest bit iffy about the anarchist sympathies I expressed in previous posts, but I thought I didn’t really have anything to hide. I got the job at the end of the interview anyway, but that brief moment reminded me how potentially vulnerable you can be online. I’m also reminded of what happened to a friend of mine when she was applying for Phd schools: one of the professors she was hoping to work with had found her blog and complimented her on it. There wasn’t anything incriminating there either, but she’s now gotten herself a new blog (just in case, I suspect).
Because the gaze of the Internet is potentially always present, many have likened it to a panopticon. The panopticon is a type of prison designed in such a way that the prisoners never know whether or not they are being watched by their jailers; since the prisoners do not know whether they are being watched, they will act as if they are always being watched and accordingly police themselves. Michel Foucault likens certain parts of “Western” societies to panopticons, since their power to discipline behaviour relies on the visibility of subjects to the gaze of others. The individual is always self-consciously aware of the possibility of being spied upon and will therefore change his or her behaviour accordingly.
However, it seems to me that people won’t necessarily police themselves in a panopticon system. Rather, I think it’s just as likely that people will start tearing down the wall between public and private in their own lives. If one is potentially always being watched, then does it matter if one farts in an empty room or in a crowded dining room? Perhaps someone will see you expel bodily gas when you are in your own bedroom, and perhaps no one will notice if you fart while having dinner with other people. What used to be private might start becoming public, and instead of a society where people police themselves, you might see a society where self-discipline is largely nonexistent.
The power of the panopticon also rests on certain culturally-specific notions of private and public. For example, there is a certain group of people in South America (damned if I remember which one — the Aymara? the Jivaro?) who traditionally lived in longhouses shared by several families. Because there will always be comeone in the longhouse, couples usually have sex in a secluded spot outside, perhaps in the jungle or an empty garden. For these people, then, the indoors is a public space, while it is outdoors where privacy exists. This is the reverse of “Western” notions of public and private, since “a man’s home is his castle”, “it is not the business of the state to regulate what happens in people’s bedrooms”, and so on.
Many people often speak of blogging as a panopticon system. The blogger is always under the gaze of the Internet. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to call blogging a panopticon, since the gaze of the Internet is one that bloggers invite. The gaze of others in a panopticon is involuntary and unwanted, while the gaze of the Internet in blogging is one bloggers try to capture. There have been many news stories, for example, about bloggers being fired for criticizing their employers in their blogs. Blogging cannot therefore be a panopticon system, since otherwise the bloggers would have censored themselves. In a panopticon, the prisoners must be aware that they are potentially being watched by anyone on the Internet, which the bloggers who were fired obviously didn’t consider.
However, even if bloggers start censoring themselves, blogging still cannot be a panopticon. One of the implied requirements of a panopticon is that the prisoners be entirely revealed to their jailers, or else they could simply engage in their illicit activities while out of sight of the authorities. In blogging, whatever is visible about a blogger is visible only because the blogger has made it so. The blogger reveals only what he or she wishes to reveal, and therefore what is revealed is not the entirety of a blogger but a front that he or she has constructed.
It should be obvious in this blog that I reveal only a fraction of the things I do and think about. What you see is what I wish you to see. Hoever, how you understand it is beyond my control. Which takes us into a discussion of authorship, intent, and the death of The Author. But that’s as far as I want to go, so you’ll have to be satisfied with what I’ve given you today.