Watching Each Other: Foucault’s Panopticon and Confessional in Social Media

Everyone knows when we post online, we’re being watched. The NSA, the FBI, Google, Facebook, Apple, Visa, ModCloth–they monitor our online activities for patterns that indicate danger or that can teach them to market directly to us; they monitor for aberrant behavior that needs correction or attention, or that can be profited by. But, we are also always monitoring each other: it’s a miniature (or major) scandal whenever someone posts on Facebook or Twitter about their experiences that deviate from social norms. Who’s drunk the night before a final? Who’s already Facebook-married to her boyfriend of one week? Or even just, Who doesn’t understand the conventions of what it’s okay to post–Who’s being too boring? With the spread of social media came the spread of an Internet culture, and the heart of that culture is social. We Internet-goers are a society.

Like any society, there are norms and values that are reinscribed and reinforced by both our own behavior and the ways that we monitor the behavior of others. American Internet culture is largely derived from, of course, American offline culture–although can we really separate them?  Thinking about social media–really, the social Internet–as the major vehicle by which we watch each other, I’m arguing here that social media can be read as Foucault’s confessional-turned-panopticon, in which people expose and put into language (text, pictures, videos, music) their experiences and stories, the process of which makes them subject those experiences to social discourse, to become “subjects,” to self-police and be policed in terms of the social norms and values of those watching from the tower–the confessors, the public, society. By “confessing” publicly, we enter into a social relationship of watching, surveilling, policing one another.

 

Watching each other online. CC 2.0 boreal eye, "MacBook and glasses"

Watching each other online. CC 2.0 boreal eye, “MacBook and glasses”

Jeremy Bentham originally proposed the idea of the panopticon: a circular prison, with one cell for each individual, one tower in the center, and no way to see into the other cells or the tower. From the tower, an officer or council might be stationed to watch all of the prisoners, and with this constant threat of being watched–and the subsequent threat of punishment if they do wrong–prisoners will follow rules by their own will.

Plan of the Panopticon. From: The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3

Plan of the Panopticon. From: The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault considers the implications of this prison model, as well as provides a route for thinking about a panopticon without the walls–a socially-, institutionally-enforced panopticon in which we are all imprisoned. As power became disembodied, democratized, removed from the singular monarch, and punishment moved into the prisons, the power to discipline and control bodies became institutionalized. Prisoners can be constantly watched, timed, instructed, and re-interpolated into correct behavior according to social norms. Here, prisoners are taught how to be “good” citizens by teaching them how to monitor themselves: “He who is subject to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power;…he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles” (Discipline & Punish III.3). And, when the panopticon extends out of the prisons and into society, it is not “Big Brother” that we need to worry about, but, as Tom Brignall III says, “‘Little Brother’ (or other inmates).”

Several authors have considered the role of the Internet as panopticon, especially thinking about the relationship between information, knowledge, and power, but their analyses largely rest on the concern that the government and corporations have the power to occupy the tower. Especially with the recent leak of NSA intelligence-gathering methods, fears are stronger than ever about the potential that these powerful institutions have in watching us.

More disconcerting than official authorities’ seizing information, however, is the voluntary nature of disclosing ourselves online, of making ourselves visible for surveillance. In 1997, James Boyle articulated the “Holy Trinity” of the Internet, three principles which still serve as the basis of Internet culture:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

“In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance.”

“Information Wants to be Free.”

Reading very much like aphorisms in Dave Eggers’ The Circle, this trinity asserts that freedom of expression–and thus, of sharing oneself–is key online. What I want to focus on here is not the government’s ability to watch us–maybe because I’m a member of the 9/11 generation, that doesn’t bother me all that much–but, our ability and desire to put ourselves in the panopticon and then watch one another; we are in a two-way panopticon.

Thinking about what I’m calling the myth of free expression online also brings us to the repressive hypothesis, and to confession. Later in his life, Foucault wrote The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, and in it, he debunks the repressive hypothesis–the idea that discourse on sex has been repressed and censored, and every time we talk about sex we are resisting that force. Instead, he argues that we have always been encouraged to talk about sex in more and more prescribed ways so that our experiences can be pulled out into the open, so they can be surveilled and recorded, monitored and policed, while encouraging a similar kind of self-policing as the panopticon. Power is not only negative, prohibitive, but power can be wielded through the “incitement to discourse,” about sexuality in this history, but also about all experiences. This discourse was encouraged first in the the Catholic Church in the confessional, later by doctors, psychiatrists, and even later still, by talk show hosts when it was joined with our love of celebrity. Incitement to discourse encouraged confession of sexuality down to the details, while also regulating where and when it was appropriate to speak about sex, and in what terms. By making sex an important–the important–experience to talk about, the institutions in power made it simultaneously known and secretive/repressed (since it then became liberatory to speak from under repression) (19). Foucault says this was, “the nearly infinite task of telling–telling oneself and another, as often as possible, everything that might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts” (20). And, this telling was incited not for self-indictment of illegal acts, but for self-improvement at the level of desire:

Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex; that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and an increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself (23).

CC by Dennis Jarvis, "Luxembourg-5156 - Benches and Confessionals"

CC 2.0 Dennis Jarvis, “Luxembourg-5156 – Benches and Confessionals”

While the repressive hypothesis argues that confessions were made “apart from or against power,” Foucault points out that they took place “in the very space and as the means of its existence” (32). Confession, the first person narration of experience, was constructed as a good, as an extraction of truth from oneself and subsequent self-examination, so that we do not recognize it as a working of power, but we see it as if truth “demands” surfacing. We bring out the writer through her narrative, through her confession, while constraining, prohibitive power tries to keep the truth inside that writer, but in confessing, we constitute ourselves “as subjects in both sense of the word” (60). Thus, experience is institutionalized, “constrained to lead a discursive existence” (33).

The confession inherently unfolds within a power relationship, the confessant confesses to the confessor, who holds the authority to require the confession. In the case of the internet, that is the public, and there is no explicit power relationship, but instead a much more subtle power of authority, in which “confessions” online are not required but expected, and then the public has the power to judge, to discipline, to shun, to absolve. But, the confessional discourse always originates “below,” in the confessant, acting on that expectation and the desire to change desire. As in Discipline & Punish, Foucault recounts the democratization of power; though we still conceive of power as monarchical–invested in a powerful individual and prohibitive–it is actually the public, society, the institutions–the internet as an institution–that hold power. We understand the expectation of the digital age, the myth of free expression, that we must confess, and, “the irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” (159).

CC 2.0 Simon Gibbs, "Free speech = reason = progress"

CC 2.0 Simon Gibbs, “Free speech = reason = progress”

Simon Copland thinks about our “culture of confession,” and, like those who think about the internet-as-panopticon, he limits himself to worrying about government and corporate access to information provided by these confessions, like on “personal diaries posted on the Internet” (Capp in Copland). In 2014, personal diaries, personal confessions, are tailored to apps that are specifically made to post and read confessions/watch and be watched–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blog platforms. Social media incites us to discourse about our experiences, encourages us to tell our stories, while also asking us to revise our “desires,” our experiences of those stories, to fit with what will be acceptable to our confessors. And, by making these confessions publicly, we place ourselves into that two-way panopticon, whereby anyone online can watch us, so we similarly self-police, but we can also watch anyone else; we become both instruments and subjects of interpolation ourselves.

The most obvious place to look for the digital confessional is the literal one: confession websites and blogs, and confessions made more generally around the web. Jenny Hollander writes about this confession video that went viral last fall, in which Matthew Cordle confesses to drunk driving the wrong way on a highway and killing a man, and promises that he will take responsibility for his crime:

Hollander points out that this is only one more confession of a gruesome crime that the anonymity of the internet allows to be glorified. Cordle got to share his confession, as the myth of free expression says he should. If the internet is a place for open expression, for stories, shouldn’t people be able to reveal those stories that they most need to tell? Of fights, of rape, of murder? If the victims speak, so shouldn’t the victimizers? If one anonymously confessed to priests before, why shouldn’t she seek absolution in the new, digital confessional? Between PostSecret, Reddit, and numerous other confession websites, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, there are so many social venues wherein people can make their confessions, but in making these confessions, they are also confessing in a Foucauldian sense. By sharing anything from a dark, criminal secret, like Cordle did, to sexual fantasies of a fictional character (NSFW), to problems with school, these confessants are not only making these “secrets” available publicly–and thus, they might think, resisting censorship or repression–but they are making them available for policing. On an SJU Secrets confession, fellow students may comment in agreement, or they might shame the o.p./confessant for being racist or a slut. And, in posting, confessants understand the social expectations of these confessions. Maybe they’re bragging about that secret, but maybe their “conscience” is getting to them; maybe they feel that they need to share this story and face the denouncement or forgiveness of the Internet community, of society. By telling their stories, these confessants are making their experiences discursive, to be read, to be shaped and understood through social norms and values, and to be disciplined and corrected if deviating from those norms and values.

From Oh-Really-Confessions on tumblr.

From Oh-Really-Confessions on tumblr.

Another aspect of these confession sites is their anonymity. Posting anonymously, of course, makes the confessant feel more secure from the hate or discipline that might come their way, but at the same time, I’m not sure that anonymity really defeats the function of confession simply because the confessant is not attached. What is being read/watched/surveilled is not particularly the subjectivity of that confessant, but their actions, their stories–in other words, their role as a subject of discussion and of institutions rather than their role as a subject of choice, action, identity. However, this also raises the question whether one’s Internet identities/presence is ever truly not anonymous–one may post under her name, but it is still detached from her person. Perhaps the inherent anonymity of the Internet allows for confession to take its current, ubiquitous form.

So, turning to non-anonymous forms of digital confession, we turn to the big three: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There are, of course, the more explicit kinds of non-anonymous confession: there was the man who posted a picture of his wife’s corpse on Facebook with the caption “Im going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys miss you guys takecare Facebook people you will see me in the news,” and there are those who “TweetWhatYouEat” in order to manage their caloric intake by inviting and self-administering the shame of making bad choices public.

CC 2.0 jessica mullen, "Tweetwhatyoueat - Diary"

CC 2.0 jessica mullen, “Tweetwhatyoueat – Diary”

But, really, every social media post is a confession. Every time that you or I post a status, a tweet, a picture, a blog entry, we are putting our experiences into social discourse, we are self-policing according to what will be acceptable to our followers and friends, and we are creating a record of information about us, by all of which, we subject ourselves to social norms. While most feedback from friends is usually affirmative, it is so because we have tailored our story to their affirmation; we have experienced, then shaped that experience for confession, for discourse. We try to be funny, we try to be smart, we try to be cool; we choose what we would like to share based on creating both an image and an actual self that are in-line with what the Internet public wants–and yet, we do not choose in many ways, because these confessions are expected/required.

Everyday Instagram confessions @araehg

Everyday Instagram confessions @araehg

In the Instagram screenshot above, I posted a pictorial confession. My confession: that I am reading Tiffany Rousculp’s Rhetoric of Respect; that it is an academic book, for a class; that I am engaging with Writing Center scholarship; that I am reading this book in print, rather than digitally; that I am not used to reading print anymore; that I usually read digital texts; that I think it’s uncool to have to read in print; that I am embracing a digital identity. This confession also reveals some of my personality: I am academic, I am sarcastic, I am modern, I am progressive and quick to accept new forms of activities, and I am not all that funny but I try (feel free to disagree in the comments). With this post, I tell my experience, my story, but I also tell myself, to my followers. And, this post fits into a larger story of my daily life that I confess online through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and even my own e-portfolio website. In this way, I am not only making myself available for surveillance, but I am self-policing toward the self that the Internet wants me to be.

When I confess, I am really making myself Transparent. The world of Eggers’ The Circle turns on the idea of Transparency and Going Transparent–a person wears a live-streaming camera around her neck at all times, so that everything she does, everyone she speaks to, and even many of her thoughts as she narrates her transparency, are available to viewers online. In addition, thousands of SeeChange surveillance cameras are placed in public locations over the course of the novel, making all of those locations transparent, but, more importantly, providing another layer of transparency for those who Go Transparent. (To see an ongoing Transparency experiment, visit Jaedah Carty’s blog here.) The Circle’s utopia is a world in which everyone is transparent, so that there are no more secrets, lies, or stories to confess–everyone is confessing themselves all the time. In a world that already has SeeChange-style surveillance and in which we are making ourselves transparent via social media, we are close to this utopia, which is truly a Foucauldian nightmare.

But, going transparent does not have to be the end of freedom. Instead, as I have shown in this post, we are already unfree in so many ways–our confessions put us on display in a digital panopticon, and we are already purveyors of hegemonic social norms when we occupy the tower for other inmates/confessants. We do not resist by sharing our stories; we share them as the very basis upon which our power relationships are structured. In this digital age, as we become more transparent, we need to ask ourselves what our privacy is worth. What is the fault in surveillance, in confession, in policing and self-policing? What is at stake?

In Stephen Davenport Jukuri’s chapter in Stories from the Center, he mentions Foucault’s Voices of Inclination and Institution. Using the first, one fools herself into believing she is working outside institutionalized norms and power structures–she is freely expressing herself online, in a culture based on the first amendment. Using the second voice, she assimilates to and accepts those institutionalized norms and power structures, taking the path of least resistance. In reality, using both voices, one might say the same thing. Instead, Jukuri says that there is a possibility for a “third voice:”

“It would be a voice that can learn to work between those two extremes, to facilitate a mutual negotiation between the individual and the institution, working with individuals not only to occupy and employ a multitude of subject positions but to gain some control over their construction, to negotiate their terms, to re-create them, and to open up new fields of possibilities for ourselves and each other” (60, emphasis mine).

A friend named this the Voice of Acknowledgement, in which one is aware of the Institution and the Inclination and their false binary opposition to one another, and learns to not only work between and among them but to make them both work for her.

We are usually given two options online: we can fit ourselves to the confessions demanded by social media, accept the privacy settings as they are, and embrace our subject positions OR we can resist, and create groups that value and privilege an open kind of communication, art, creativity, experience. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive–that is the myth–and maybe Acknowledgement of the interplay between the two, Acknowledgement of the ways in which inclinational expression is institutional, and institutional expression is inclinational, can create a middle-space, a “third voice,” a space of negotiation and re-creation that allows us to live as freely as we can within the digital confessional, the virtual panopticon.

CC 2.0 Jason Howie, "Social Media apps"

CC 2.0 Jason Howie, “Social Media apps”

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Big Brother: 9 Ways You’re Being Watched

We’re pretty much already transparent in so many ways. But, is it really a bad thing?

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Social Media & The Digital Confessional: Full Outline

Watching Each Other: Foucault’s Panopticon and Confessional in Online Sharing

I. Intro
a. Thesis: The internet, especially social media, can be read as Foucault’s confessional-turned-panopticon, in which people expose and put into language (text, pictures, videos, music) their experiences and stories, the process of which makes them subject those experiences to social discourse, to self-police and be policed in terms of the social norms and values of those watching from the tower, the confessors, the public, society.

II. Literature Review
a. Foucault
i. Panopticon
1. Brignall
2. Hope
ii. Confessional
1. Copland
2. McInnis
b. Open expression culture online
i. Boyle
c. Thinking about the internet as a confessional/panopticon
i. Relationship between power/knowledge—between posting/policing and the internet as an institution
1. Rajagopal
ii. Panopticon
1. Official/Authority Surveillance
a. Hope
b. Copland
c. Rajagopal
d. Corporations
i. Brignall
e. Direct policing
i. Boyle
ii. Rajagopal
f. Self oppression
i. Brignall
g. Resistance to surveillance, gaming the system
i. Hope
ii. Rajagopal
iii. Confessional
1. McInnis
2. Copland (web diaries–>I turn to social media as web diaries)

III. Texts of confession
a. Confession sites
i. Hollander
ii. Anonymity—anonymity vs. identification; anonymity via internet regardless of identification; illusion of      anonymity
b. Social media
i. Joyce—two-way panopticon
ii. Heussner
iii. Facebook
iv. Twitter
v. Instagram
c. Transparency
i. Daily blogs
ii. The Circle
iii. Jaedah’s project

IV. Conclusion
a. Summary
b. Possibilities for resistance–Third voice – Jukuri
c. Further thoughts

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Social Media & The Digital Confessional: Outlining a long post

Tentative Thesis: The internet, especially social media, can be read as Foucault’s confessional-turned-panopticon, in which people expose and put into language (text, pictures, videos, music) their experiences and stories, the process of which makes them subject those experiences to social discourse, to self-police and be policed in terms of the social norms and values of those watching from the tower, the confessors, the public, society.

Literature Review:

  • Foucault & the Panopticon & the confessional
  • Most of the literature reading the internet through Foucault thinks about government and corporate surveillance of activity and the dangers of waning privacy rights.
  • Some have lightly considered the work of watching and seeing each other via social media.

Body:

  • Confession sites
  • Twitter hashtag #tbh, #confession, and any others–suggestions, readers?
  • Representations of self and identity on Facebook–profiles and posts

Conclusion: Not quite here yet.

 

As you can see, I need some help thinking through all of this (although I’m a sparse outliner to begin with). Workshop in class should help, but do you have any thoughts? Let me know in the comments. Let’s make this collaborative.

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Ki Mae Heussner, “Digital Confessionals: Tweeting Away Your Vices”

This article explores the use of social media as a way to motivate/shame yourself into meeting a goal, like losing weight, monitoring your spending, or quitting smoking. The author looks at one man who lost weight by tweeting his caloric intake, another website TweetWhatYouEat.com and its derivative, TweetWhatYouSpend.com (both now defunct), and several programs through health and tobacco-free organizations that help support/shame people into quitting. While these are interesting examples of social media being used explicitly to police behavior, what really struck me was the article’s brief exploration of the way that shame plays a role in these practices. Of course, like Mae in The Circle, you don’t want to make a bad or embarrassing choice with the world watching, so you choose vegetables over pizza, don’t light up, or don’t buy that $60 bottle of wine from Borghese on the North Fork (even though it tastes so good!). When the public, when society and its judgments about good and bad, is in the tower, as Joyce wrote a little bit about, we begin to self-police, to represent ourselves in acceptable terms, and if we deviate, we are quickly corrected, by the shame we feel ourselves or the shame imposed directly by others.

Heussner, Ki Mae. “Digital Confessionals: Tweeting Away Your Vices.” ABC News. 15 Oct 2009.

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Richard Joyce, “Internet Surveillance: A Virtual Panopticon?”

This short blog post appears to be part of Richard Joyce’s blog for a course at Bowdoin, and, similar to this blog, he’s thinking through some of his own thoughts in relation to what he’s read. The thrust of his thinking is that the internet, especially social media, may provide a new kind of panopticon, in which there is a two-way visibility of exhibition and surveillance and, in so many words, the public occupies the tower of the prison:

I find it intriguing to apply the idea of “panopticism” to the Internet, especially after reading about how the anonymity of the web can be liberating.  If we disregard hacking and surveillance of private material such as email, maybe we can think of the Internet as a Panopticon with open doors, where the central tower is accessible to anyone who desires it.  A Facebook newsfeed is like a Panopticon in which users are simultaneously in a visible cell and in the anonymous viewing tower.  The tower provides power because it is very informative, but this power if [sic] distributed relatively evenly.

Like The Circle makes clear, we are in a society of making ourselves seen by others and watching others–a person on Facebook self-polices what they post, but they still post it; they are creating a certain story/discourse/confession of themselves to present to the world and thus, filtering their story through social norms. Joyce points out that we grow wary when someone dangerous enters the central tower of the panopticon, like a sexual predator or the government, but what about the danger that comes from all of us occupying that tower all the time? All of us as prison guards and confessors all at once?

Joyce articulates well some of what I’m thinking about and helps me to think further about the relationship between the internet, social media, the panopticon, and the confessional.

 

Joyce, Richard. “Internet Surveillance: A Virtual Panopticon?” Bowdoin: Sociology 022 – In the Facebook Age – Spring 2010 – Dhiraj Murthy. 19 April 2010.

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Jenny Hollander, “YouTube Video of Matthew Cordle Latest to Post Murder ‘Confession’ on Internet”

Last year, Because I said I would, a website that helps people post a commitment they are making, posted the above video on YouTube, featuring Matthew Cordle confessing to drunk driving the wrong way on a highway and killing a man, and promising that he will take responsibility for his crime. The video went viral, and Cordle has been the recipient of a lot of praise for his bravery, accountability, and message (“I’m begging you, please don’t drink and drive”), but, Jenny Hollander points out in this article, this is only one more confession of a gruesome crime that the anonymity of the internet allows to be glorified.

Between PostSecret, Reddit, and numerous other confession websites, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, most of which allow the confessant to remain anonymous, criminal confessions pop up online and go viral, but there is not much that the criminal justice system can do about it. Hollander says, “an anonymous murder confession on the Internet is, frustratingly, almost impossible to prosecute.” Beyond the impotence of the justice system, this speaks to a more disturbing problem–how much freedom of speech is too much? The anonymity of the internet (even the anonymity of simply being able to make and post a video or a picture with one’s name attached, but not one’s person) may go too far when it allows for not only the confession of these crimes with some degree of immunity, but the celebration of them by the rest of the anonymous internet.

Then again, if the internet is a place for open expression, for stories, shouldn’t people be able to reveal those stories that they most need to tell? Of fights, of rape, of murder? If the victims speak, so shouldn’t the victimizers? If one anonymously confessed to priests before, why shouldn’t she seek absolution in the new, digital confessional?

I also wonder to what degree anonymous confessions deter policing? Yes, yes, they cannot be prosecuted, but if a person is posting their crime on the internet, anonymously or not, are they not self-policing? Maybe they’re bragging, I suppose, but maybe their “conscience” is getting to them; maybe they feel that they need to share this story and face the denouncing or forgiveness of the internet community, of society. By telling their stories, these confessants are making their experiences discursive, to be read, to be shaped and understood through social norms and values, and to be disciplined and corrected if deviating from those norms and values.

 

Hollander, Jenny. “YouTube Video of Matthew Cordle Latest to Post Murder ‘Confession’ on Internet.” Bustle. October 2013.

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Kevin Kee, “Share your research. That’s what keeps the humanities alive.”

An interesting read about humanities research, the academy, and the ways in which the accessibility and openness of the internet begins to deconstruct the Ivory Tower. Kee reflects on his experience in the 1990’s, breaking into the academy through publications and dry textual media, then turns to the innovations of the digital age, and how it has changed the ability to research (with new tools and available information), to publish (online, in free, open formats), and to discuss research (quickly, at the speed of access). This is very relevant to a turn in my thinking about undergraduate research toward the question, how can the internet/the digital help to make slippery the Professional/Undergraduate Research binary and help the academy recognize undergraduates’ legitimacy?

Kee, Kevin. “Share your research. That’s what keeps the humanities alive.” The Globe and Mail. 2 April 2014. 

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Indhu Rajagopal, “Does the Internet shape a disciplinary society? The information-knowledge paradox”

Rajagopal’s essay considers the relationship between information and knowledge through a Foucauldian framework. This was a complex, dry argument, so I’m going to try to communicate what I understood, and what I might continue to think about.

In the knowledge/power dyad, obtaining knowledge allows state and corporate forces to make people “objects of knowledge,” to use this knowledge to watch, discipline, examine, and normalize docile bodies. Information, however, is not the same as knowledge; knowledge is understanding, which we may not gain from information, so the gathering of information instead of knowledge through information and communication technologies may be a place for resistance.

Rajagopal, like so many others, is concerned with surveillance and control based on the power from the knowledge from the information from that surveillance. What I find interesting in this essay, though, is the relationship between power and knowledge to which Rajagopal draws attention: “Foucault studies social bodies controlled by the inseparable vicious dyads of power/knowledge: control elicits knowledge, and knowledge is used for control.” Confessions, sharing, provide the knowledge that gives hegemonic structures and institutions their power, and that power allows those structures and institutions to pull confessions from us. We post online because society values sharing, then we can be controlled by those social values.
I wonder, could the internet be considered an institution in itself? Is it an ISA of sorts?
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Two Articles on Deep & Long Reading (That’s what she said.)

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I was sent Michael S. Rosenwald’s “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say,” and Steven Poole’s “The internet isn’t harming our love of ‘deep reading’, it’s cultivating it” by a friend who I’m going to assume has read a little of this blog, since she found things that were spot-on with some of what I’ve been thinking about. Or, maybe she just knows I get angry about marginalization of digital culture a lot.

I’m not going to lie. I skimmed the first article. Rosenwald makes a highly dramatic and panicky claim that kids these days can’t read a novel because our poor, innocent brains have been changed so that we can’t even sit down and read Middlemarch anymore. As if the Victorians actually sat down and read Middlemarch as Middlemarch, but that’s an argument for another day. Plagued by all of the demeaning, agency-seizing, crisis-buying-into rhetoric of many pieces about digital culture and those who are entrenched in it the most–young people–this article is a good example of what I’m going to call the crisis of linear reading. Because, it has nothing to do with depth or length; it has to do with a process of learning.

The second article responds to the issues raised in the first. Steven Poole argues wonderfully that okay, maybe our brains are changing, but why should we care? Deep reading is a cultural good, and cultures change, so in this very significant transition, what’s the problem with changing how we read? What I love in this article is, of course, the way he treats young people as agents in our own learning and living processes. Unlike so much writing lamenting the internet generation’s stupidity, lack of attention, and lack of commitment (among other things), Poole recognizes that there is legitimacy, intelligence, and a new way of doing things in how digital people read: “According to John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital, for example, a teenager’s ‘news-gathering process’ alternated skimming or ‘grazing’ with a ‘deep dive’ when she found something she could really get her teeth into.”

I would add, we’re the Wikipedia generation, the tab generation: we’ve learned to read via a kind of transfer. We gather information and writing from all different, multimedia, sources, fairly simultaneously. You’re reading a news article. You click a link on the side to a related article–you right click and open in a new tab. You jump over there and read a little bit, then look up a person mentioned on Wikipedia, which leads you to right click on a few links and open a few more tabs, until you are satisfied that you’ve learned enough, not about that topic, but around it.

In my thesis research, the undergraduate researchers that I spoke with talked about research in terms of the internet–none of my questions dealt explicitly with digital anything–for them, research is online, and research is learning. For them, research looked like “clicking links” and “opening tabs” and “following a thread” until it’s “nine tabs later” and you’ve done research.

Poole ends his essay with a critique of the division between “long reads” and skimmable pieces. The term is “infantalizing” he argues; what is wrong with “essay”? I’m not sure I disagree, but I think that the pieces we read on the internet are more than “essays”–an ill-defined but negatively-(school-)connoted genre; a flat piece of paper with some of your worst writing on it. OR, worse, an exclusive genre, published in academic journals, which indicates who is a legitimate scholar and who is not. I want to read blogs, long and short; I want to read videos, movies, TV shows; I want to read Facebook posts (though they should only be long if really warranted, as you can say a lot that can be deep-read in a few words). I don’t want to read essays. I just want to read everything, long and short.

Rosenwald, Michael S. “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say.” The Washington Post. 6 April 2014?

Poole, Steven. “The internet isn’t harming our love of ‘deep reading’, it’s cultivating it.” The Guardian. 11 April 2014

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