Elmer, G. (2003). A diagram of panoptic surveillance. New media and society, 5(2), 231-247. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from SAGE Publications database.
Not proof-read, read generously.
The development of a theory of panoptic surveillance is often hampered by an overly literal interpretation of the panopticon.
Criticisms of panopticism are made in three broad categories:
- The shifting of architectures of surveillance from “carceral enclosure” to databases which plays to debates about invasions of personal privacy.
- Questioning of the “automatic disciplinary effect of panopticism” and argues that people voluntarily participate in their own surveillance through exchanging private information about themselves for reward. These critiques miss the automatic nature of information collection on the web and the inability for opt-out.
- Through new media technologies the panopticon is now a synopticon where the many watch the few. This critique relies on an understanding that panoptic power comes from corporeal observation whereas it is derived from the architecture of light which is suggestive of surveillance
Each of these critiques are useful in further developing the concept of the panopticon but each is limited by their “heuristic points of departure” (p. 233).
Elmer sets out to explicate the diagrammatic aspects of panoptic surveillance and to explain the continuous way consumers and their data selves are integrated into the collection of personal information processes.
The panopticon relies on the hegemony of light and vision as central to the development of Foucault’s thesis of self-discipline and governance. The all seeing gaze is both marked and masked, visible yet invisible, by the architecture and arrangement of light. Thus, those subject to this unseen gaze assume its presence and modify their behaviour.
The panopticon is a “system of light and language” (p. 234) where the collection of information is foundational and essential to the operation of a system of classification and individuation. Deleuze in Postsripts points to this matter.
Foucault’s theories of surveillance maintain a lingering reliance on a spatial dimension but it is equally important to note the data gathering aspects of the system which, in effect, begin before a person’s incarceration within the confines of the panopticon. The customers were already classified and separated before their violent enclosure. Foucault was concerned with a generalisable system of power rather than the development of a specific architecture; but how might his system be imagined in the face of highly mobile modern subjects.
Elmer notes Foucault’s development of theories of power through reference to the confessional which exposed inner-most secret self and which went unquestioned as a means for the assertion of power.
Criticisms of panopticism critique the technology rather than the technique (p. 235).
Roger Clarke (Information technolgy and dataveillance, 1998) proposes that surveillance is enabled and augmented by technologies but he does not address the specific moments of data gathering. At the data gathering moment the process of collection of information and surveillance is automated in a way reminiscent of the panopticon.
Elmer notes the work of Tim Mathiesen who proposes the idea of the synopticon which inverts or locates a parallel panopticon enabling the many to watch the few via the agency of mass media; and discipline arises in this process from a disciplining of our consciousness through the media message. Elmer develops an argument that TiVo can be understood synoptically noting the way the system learns, recommends and customises (other systems such as Kwikflix perform similarly). These recommendations, based as they are on aggregates of anonymous viewing patters, raise questions about how they may may be imagined within panopticism. Elmer argues for a redrawing of the panoptic diagram.
Such a rethinking was specifically considered by Deleuze in Postscript on societies of control in which he noted that we had already ceased to be members of societies of discipline and had now become modulated by and within societies of control. Signatures and numbers which marked individuality and place within a mass had given away to a code which denies or permitted access to information and locations.
Deleuze’s diagram describes a digitally languaged system of ever changing shape and size which described the decentralised movement and flow of information throughout a network.
Elmer mentions “simulation” a great deal in relation to technologies but I’m unsure if he means that technologies tend to simulate the corporeal flow. If anyone can help me understand this I’d appreciate the help.
Deleuze and Guattari introduce the possibility of mapping the continuity between light and language. Again, I’m not sure what this means. Help anyone?
In another work, Deleuze proffers the concept of the rhizome as a diagram which evokes a sense of the space between architectural drawing and built form.
One of the key claims of panopticism is its ability to function with little or no supervision as a mechanism for automatic and constant observation and data collection. (p. 243)
In the panoptic diagram consumers are both rewarded and punished for their behaviour. Rewarded with an all-too-familiar set of images and content that leads to the consumption of more of the same and punished with extra work when attempting to seek out the unfamiliar (p. 245).