Welcome to the Panopticon!
You’re gonna like it here!
When Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon in the 18th century he was doing what every good philosopher must: he explored the grey area between the physical and mental space that contributes to the forging of identity and modifies behavior.
We’re some 222 years from Bentham’s time and the Panopticon appears to have finally come about. Not quite as a prison, nor even an institution, but as a concept supported by our increasingly digitized lifestyle and powered by our ever-expanding social media connections. We live in a world where online and offline are rapidly converging and where transparency of our activities is becoming the norm.
There are two points to keep in mind here and they’re straight out of Bentham’s description of his prison model. First it is “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind…” and, second, it’s “a mill for grinding rogues honest” (Bentham, 1787). Bentham was aware of the transformative power on human behavior of both the observation of others, and the sense of being observed by others. In our social media connected world we have seen, over the past two years, the transformation of regime change spread across the Arab world as the Arab Spring took hold, questioning whether or not capitalism is “fit for purpose” in the West (Davos, 2012). We have also observed the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement and have even seen a reversal of fiscal policy in the US thanks to the public outcry over the dishonesty revealed in the hidden transactions behind The Big Short of the recent U.S. recession.
In any century other than ours, these transformations alone would have been considered victories that vindicated Bentham’s point. But in our up-to-the-minute online culture, they are not enough. We are heading towards a world of ever increasing connectivity and immediate knowledge of even the most remote news. Personal devices that wrap themselves around our lifestyle, like Motorola’s Moto X, or devices that augment our reality, like Google Glass, are eroding the traditional barriers between online and offline, turning the latter into the former with such rapidity with the only difference now being in available bandwidth and functionalities to serve as markers of the transition.
Constant observation is challenging governments and institutions that for too long have grown accustomed to operating outside public scrutiny, their authority assured, thanks to a mantle of secretive behavior that was accepted as the norm. Bentham used the technology available in his time to envision a mechanism that, by the sheer power of total observation, would create an assumption of transparency that would, in turn, indeed, grind rogues honest. In the 21st century we know that the “rogues” are everywhere, on every side of the divide. And that the technology used by Big Government to keep tabs on us is a double-edged blade that is keeping government, if not honest, at least more cautious, aware that there is a likelihood that all of their actions will see the light of day.
The Panopticon we are in, here, now, offers a bidirectional 360 degree view that keeps the ‘keepers’ as much and the ‘inmates’ guessing. There are some real concerns in this “game.” Personal privacy, civil rights and the control over an individual’s data are problems that, just like web search, are far from solved. The solution to them, however, is unlikely to be found in anything we have done in the past. Giving up the internet and going back to some imagined halcyon times when “government knew best,” is not possible. Solving questions of national security and civil order will require a kind of transformative “spring” that may go on for many years into the future.
In a semantic world* where all action acquires meaning in direct relation to the individual, his context and particular circumstances, the solutions we are seeking are yet to be found. And when they are, the good news is they are most likely to arise from an alignment of interests between government and governed, companies and customers, members and social network owners. Paradoxically, the requirement for such an alignment also redefines the modern version of our Panopticon: the instrument of an institution, leveled at its incarcerated population, has now become the environment in which all sides find themselves in.
In short, we all now need to adjust our behavior and become more honest, both with ourselves and others.
As I told you in the title, I think you’re going to like the future!
*See the Spring issue of The Journal and the following Forbes article for more discussions by David Amerland of “semantic:” http://www.forbes.com/sites/netapp/2013/07/23/semantic-web-big-data/
Bentham, J. (1787). Panopticon; or The Inspection-House:
Containing the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection; and in particular to penitentiary-houses, prisons, houses of industry, work-houses, poor-houses, lazarettos, manufactories, hospitals, mad-houses, and schools: with a plan of management adapted to the principle. In a series of letters, written in the year 1787, from Crecheff in White Russia. to a friend in England by Jeremy Bentham, of Lincoln's Inn, Esquire. Lincoln's Inn, England.
Davos, World Economic Forum. (2012). Is the World Fit for
Purpose? (M. Young, Ed.) Davos, Switzerland: World Economic Forum.
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David Amerland has just published his already best-selling Google Semantic Search! This book may be purchased at the following URL:
He is the author of many books on this subject, all best-sellers. You may reach David at the following URL:
His articles and books on semantic search, online marketing, SEO and the social media revolution have helped thousands of entrepreneurs build successful online businesses. When he is not busy writing, he advises companies and start-ups on social media strategy, and gives talks about the social media revolution. He tells us he spends more time online than is probably healthy. You can follow him on G+ or @davidamerland.
How to cite the above article in APA format:
Amerland, David (2013). Welcome to The Panopticon! The Journal for Social
Era Knowledge, Volume 1, Issue 3. Retrieved from
About the Artist:
Peter Gentenaar writes:
My interest in paper started while working as a printmaker, when my engravings had such deep relief, that commercial paper could not fill it.
I decided to make my own paper and was helped by Jo Persoon at the Royal Dutch Paper Factory, KNP. He taught me about beaters for making paper pulp and vacuum systems to suck water out of pulp, to make paper. The laboratory beater I used was unable to process long fibers, so I built a beater of my own design.
A paper sheet is thin and strong and, reinforced with very thin ribs of bamboo, can be compared to a leaf. By beating pulp a long time, an extraordinary play of forces occurs during the drying process of my paper sculpture. The paper shrinks considerably, up to 40%, and the force of this puts the non-shrinking bamboo framework under stress, just as a leaf when it drys.
My sculptures start as totally 2-dimensional, colored sheets of pulp laying on my vacuumtable. The forms in my work are caused by pulp drying and shrinking in unison. The simplicity of the material, which is the carrier, the color, the texture and the form, in one, makes working with it wonderful and direct.
To bring paper art to the public and to be inspired by fellow paper artists, I instigated the Holland Paper Biennial in Museum Rijswijk and CODA, Apeldoorn. With friends, Pat and I have published seven books with the first seven Biennials.
To learn more about this fascinating artwork or to reach the artist, Peter can be reached through his website at the following URL: