You are being watched

Sort of.  Colin Ellard at Psychology Today published an article today called Oppressive spaces, social networks, and the Panopticon.  He starts by describing the experience of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which consists of a field that is a grid of giant grey blocks.  He put pictures in the article -- It looks bland and unremarkable from the outside, but the photo from the middle of the field gives me a mild sense of vertigo.

[... Y]ou’re quickly submerged in the form with a strong feeling of disorientation and placelessness.  You’re lost.  But at the same time, because of the long, straight alleyways, you are perpetually visible to any observer who happens to peer down one of the alleys from the outside.  You’re exposed and vulnerable, skewered on the long sightlines. [...]

Spaces have the power to oppress.  Architectural desolation can be symbolic, as in the case of the Holocaust Memorial, or it can be very real.  Many prisons, for example, can produce that same combination of feelings[.]

He then starts discussing the Panopticon, a conceptual prison theorized by Jeremy Bentham.  He never perfected it, and it's never been totally successfully built, but the idea was to create a prison in which the prisoners could be seen no matter where they were in their cell, from a central tower, but could not see where the guards were at any time.  He addresses this from both Bentham's perspective, and Michel Foucault's:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

Finally, he brings it around to his point.  The technology that Bentham couldn't master with the Panopticon, designed to constrain and shape the behaviors of the inmates, has proliferated to every corner of society.  He cites CCTVs, and speeding cameras -- I would add unmarked police cars, corporate trend monitoring, and viruses.

Then, there's the social network.

 [...T]here may be a perverse irony in the rampant popularity of electronic social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.  Many of us use these tools on a daily basis to promote a business, to stay in touch with friends but often simply to place visible markers in the world indicating our whereabouts, our movements, our activities, and our thoughts.  [...] it’s worth thinking about the fact that the very same tool that Bentham prescribed for the control of prisoners in jails is one that we’ve now perfected using the Internet.  Many of us are building a “state of conscious and permanent visibility” for ourselves, and it doesn’t seem to be unwitting.  Of our own free will, we build personal Panopticons.

For one of my exploration projects in therapy, I worked with my art therapist on a map of my emotional space.  At the center of it, I drew the tower that's meant to be at the center of the Panopticon.  I felt as though, wherever I was, however I felt, people could see me -- not that they were necessarily looking, but that there was no aspect of my inner life that I could be sure was safe from scrutiny.

I suspect that the Panopticon will be a useful metaphor moving into a comprehensively networked world.