Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

I find this piece intriguing because I worked a lot with this especially so in my film class, in which I applied cinematography to surveillance cameras in NYC. I transformed that piece to an ethical argument in my digital media ethics class, where I discuss life in the virtual panopticon:


Internet surveillance has been a rapidly growing topic of discussion recently, if you consider things like Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, the requested coverage by the Yale Conference Call for Papers, and the assistance of closed-circuit television networks in the recognizing and capturing of the Boston Marathon bombing culprits back in April. While the field of surveillance progresses into the context of our every day lives, academia will continue to study the effects of surveillance, its implications on society, and search for a definition of privacy.

Marc Davis’ article about Big Brother in the workplace argues that it is “an ethical breach” to spy on people, especially because there is no legal remedy combatting the “invasion of privacy.” He concludes his argument by saying, “In light of all the illegal misdeeds of so many corporations of late, perhaps the employees should be monitoring their employers, instead of vice versa.” I should start off by saying that I don’t totally disagree with Mr. Davis, but I do have some serious reservations about his argument. Marc mentions, “Nosy bosses…can also monitor computers to track website visits to see if an employee is frittering away valuable time playing games, watching porn, searching for another job, or browsing Facebook or You Tube, Twitter, or other social media.” I catch a negative vibe about the “Orwellian fishbowl where bosses watch our every move,” and I feel as though while some privacy is warranted, people should not be looking at porn, searching for other jobs, and playing games while “on the job.” Marc also cites a study done by AOL back in September about how surveillance in the workplace increases stress levels, resentment and anger, and generally lowers workplace morale. It’s also been found that “For most people, it is possible to ignore surveillance in their daily lives” (Koskela, 2003). I know surveillance seems to be a breach of privacy, but if you have a problem with not being able to watch porn at work, maybe you should be looking for a new job.

Marc Davis is approaching the argument from a deontological ethics standpoint, stating that surveillance and the role the employer has as “watcher” commit acts that generate bad consequences (low morale, increased stress, etc.). It is the duty of the employer to watch over his/her employees, but Marc believes that the level of surveillance in the workplace today is a breach of privacy and there is little progress being made in terms of protecting the privacy of employees. Davis says, “workers, when on the job, have little or no right to privacy.” I have to disagree—keep the porn, the social media, and searching for other jobs at home. You have a private life in your own home to do those things. Sociology defines the workplace as your “public sphere,” and your home your “private sphere.” “The public sphere covers our public interactions, education, business, government, community interactions. The private sphere belongs to the individual and the family” (Curran & Takata, 1997). While in your public sphere, you should acknowledge that your actions are subject to surveillance.

I agree with Marc Davis, in that “surveillance…has become rampant,” and that “Surveillance and spy ware technology keeps improving.” However, I argue that this increased use of surveillance works for the greater good; it’s an idea that produces the most good, rather than it being an invasion of privacy. Taking the utilitarian standpoint, I think it’s relevant to mention famous utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham created what is known as the “Panopticon,” which is literally is a prison design that allows a prison guard to see what each and every prisoner is doing, with no limitations in view…but the prison guard remains “invisible.” The ability to see the entire prison is believed to deter prisoners from acting in criminally and immorally. That being said, today we are experiencing a virtual “panopticon” (as Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault have predicted) (“Panopticism,” Wiki), especially in the workplace and on social media, and people believe it is an invasion of their privacy. “Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. Surveillance by CCTV cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace” (“Panopticism,” Wiki). Foucault also recognized that “space is crucial in explaining social power relations. Through surveillance cameras (and new technologies) the panoptic technology of power is electronically extended” (Koskela, 2003). Employers, to ensure and promote proper work habits and work ethic, are utilizing all of the extensions of this virtual “Panopticon.”

Like I said, surveillance is useful…actually it’s successful in its original design to watch over and prevent criminal, and even immoral, behavior. In relation to crime prevention and criminal behavior, “The figure of the Panopticon is already haunted by a parallel figure of simulation,” (Bogard, 1996) where surveillance is supposed to be subtle, undetectable, judicial, and placed specifically “to produce real effects of discipline” (Bogard, 1996).”Eventually this will lead, by its means of perfection, to the elimination of the Panopticon itself. . . surveillance as its own simulation” (Bogard, 1996). The Watchman: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood, by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso, contains a chapter titled “The Liberal Panopticon.” After describing a scenario in a casino, they outline the goals of the surveillance systems in casinos and the effects of said systems.

“Nevertheless, the casino industry continues to pioneer “smart” systems designed to interpret the finer points of human demeanor—such as, perplexingly enough, the difference between “natural” conduct and conduct that is natural in a casino that is known to be full of cameras. Few surveillance professionals accept the common premise that knowledge of being observed eliminates erratic or dishonest behavior. Instead, they have learned that an awareness of cameras encourages casino patrons to behave like “casino patrons” (p. 54-55).

So it’s been found that the goals of the original panopticon, despite the fact that criminal behavior will never cease to exist, actually does influence the way people act when they are being watched. So, eventually the cameras stop working after a while, and the Vegas casino doesn’t bother repairing them because as long as the cameras appear like they are looking over the casino, people will be “encouraged” to act in a manner that is less like themselves, and more like an ordinary “casino-goer.” The same can be said for the workplace—despite knowing they are being watched, the feeling of being watched coerces people into avoiding criminal, immoral/unethical behavior, and induces proper work environment/public sphere habits. “Watching remains sporadic, but the threat of being watched never ceases” (Koskela, 2003).

As mentioned above, policing and development of the virtual “Panopticon” does not have the ability to halt criminal behavior entirely, but “First, cameras are a highly effective deterrent. By increasing the chance that assailants will be recorded and apprehended, citizens are less likely to commit crimes. According to Middlesbrough (UK) Council’s executive member for community safety, their CCTV camera network helped catch 678 lawbreakers in 2005” (The Hoya, 2006). A United Kingdom-based website titled reports all the latest UK technology news, reviews, and analysis; in 2007, the website reported that the New York City Police Department used the 17 webcameras EarthCam (check out their website, it’s pretty awesome) operates in Times Square in the investigation of an explosion of a United States Army recruiting center. Closed-circuit television networks that survey the bustling streets of Boston were able to capture the faces of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, which ultimately led to their apprehension.

Then there are the cases like the one of Mohamed Mohamud—a Somali-American man who was convicted of trying to detonate a bomb in Portland, Oregon who had his sentence pushed back because his defense team stated that he was caught in the act by “warrantless surveillance” (Savage, NYTimes, 2013). Marc Davis claims that there is little “statutory protection,” but there are laws in place to protect our privacy, and there have been other Supreme Court cases that have fought against “warrantless surveillance,” such as the cases of Jewel v. National Security Agency and Hepting v. AT&T. The case Jewel v. NSA was filed in 2008 after whistleblower Mark Klein released information that included the communication between AT&T and the NSA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) charged the NSA with “an “illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communications surveillance” (Jewel v. NSA, EFF). Despite these Supreme Court cases, Davis argues, “if employees sign waivers or employment contracts that grant the employer certain surveillance permissions, there may not be a legal remedy for the workers.” If an employee does not want to be watched, or feels as though it’s against the law to be under constant surveillance, then they don’t have to sign the contract…it’s as simple as that.

In another article I found (and agreed with) on the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy webpage, Benjamin van Loon, a writer who hails from Chicago, wants readers to consider that our privacy and the things which we believe we are entitled to hold private are in fact only nominally private. He states that while the NSA (and employers) may indeed be violating the law by invading our privacy, “privacy” is a construct that we have both developed and taken for granted…the privacies we feel have been violated, might just so happen to be a misrepresentation of privacy. Van Loon recognizes the need for a redefining of privacy, and he believes that privacy is a term that is defined on a person-to-person basis. The ethical framework is deontological ethics, where humans decide the rightness and wrongness of particular actions. I feel like his take on deontological ethics works, because surveillance and privacy can be approached from on a person-to-person basis. Van Loon also recognizes that the increasing application of surveillance in our daily lives is creating paranoia among the masses, and while we should have a right to certain privacies, we should first determine what “private” means. How we each define privacy will, in turn, have an effect on how we view the surveillance we experience.

Van Loon continues to bring up “phone call metadata.” When the phone was an emergent technology early in the 20th century, it required the use of a human mediator, or operator. That kept phone calls in the public sphere. As technology improved, phone conversations moved into the private sphere of our lives. Privacy wasn’t something we were entitled to since the invention of the telephone; it has emerged as a convenience for us and is nominally assured. “We take this assurance for granted and thus get upset when this nominal assurance caves at the slightest breeze” (Van Loon, 2013). I feel as though we are experiencing a similar phenomenon in the workplace, and the increasing use of surveillance is upsetting some people.

Surveillance, both in the context of the workplace and in the context of our daily lives, serves an extremely valuable purpose. Not all agree with the idea that surveillance is necessary for our safety, but safety (just like privacy) is something way too many people take for granted. Employers should be able to hold the expectation that their employees are doing the right thing, just as national governments should be able to hold expectations that the people are going to do the right thing…until citizens and employees can collectively be trusted, surveillance is going to continue to progress into our daily lives. Or people can continue to rob, murder, and vandalize, while employees continue to watch porn and look for new jobs while in the office…I mean, what do you think?

















Works Cited

Bogard, William. The Simulation of Surveillance. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1996. Print.

“Cameras Help Stop Crime.” The Hoya. 22 Sept. 2006. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <;.

Curran, and Takata. “Public/Private Spheres.” Public/Private Spheres. 7 Dec. 1999. Web.

Davis, Marc. “Big Brother in the Workplace.” Center for Digital Ethics & Policy (2013). 30 Dec. 2013. Web.

“Jewel v. NSA | Electronic Frontier Foundation.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <;.

Koskela, Hille. “‘Cam Era’ – the Contemporary Urban Panopticon.” Surveillance & Society 1.3 (2003): 292-313. Web.

Marks, Peter.”Imagining Surveillance: Utopian Visions and Surveillance Studies.” Surveillance & Society: 222-39. Print.

“NYPD Uses EarthCam in Bomb Investigation.” 07 Mar. 2008. Web.

“Panopticism.” Wikipedia. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <;.

Rosen, David, and Aaron Santesso. The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood. Yale UP, 2013. Print.

Savage, Charles.”Warrantless Surveillance Continues to Cause Fallout.” The New York Times. 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Van Loon, Benjamin. “Privacy and the NSA.” Center for Digital Ethics & Policy (2013). 9 Dec. 2013. Web.

Philosophy for change

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd


You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want…

View original post 1,025 more words


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