Tom Brignall III, “The New Panopticon – The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control”

I would have never guessed that this article was post-9/11, but according to this vaguely-identified HTML version of it, it was published in 2002. I don’t know why no one has considered the panopticon and the internet more recently, but maybe that’s why I have to bring it back to the fore. I’m so noble.

This article thinks about Bentham’s/Foucault’s panopticon in relation to the internet, quickly becoming an important way to communicate and get information (and porn) at Brignall’s writing. As has been described before, the panopticon works because it makes the prisoner “self-oppress” because of the possibility but unknowability of always being watched by those in control. It is not the government/laws that we need to worry about on the internet, though, says Brignall, but the multinational corporations like AOL (lol) and a bunch of companies I’ve never heard of which are taking liberties to watch their customers’ activity for marketing research–for surveillance and for behavior-modification for those who engage in activities that might damage the profit margin of these companies. Brignall argues that the panopticism of the internet is in its potential to conform internet-users to good citizens of capitalism, rather than of democracy, as Foucault focused on.

My own addendum to this goes beyond the corporations or the government, to think about the way that society as a whole, as a collection of individuals, polices behavior (and thought and discourse) on the internet. I latch onto one Foucault quote that Brignall pulls: “The power of the panopticon becomes ‘a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posed everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert'” (Foucault, 1972 in Brignall 7-8 in the PDF). It is not “Big Brother” that we need to worry about, Brignall says, but “‘Little Brother’ (or other inmates)”–though he thinks of these Little Brothers as sort-of hired surveillance teams for the corporations, and I think of them as agents/subjects of social hegemony.

From here, Brignall thinks about peer-to-peer networks, like Napster; surveillance technologies, like the FBI’s Carnivore system; and consumer programs that gather marketing data, and the ways that these technologies work to watch, to invade privacy, to trod upon the right to privacy. If we are willing to let ourselves be watched–for safety, for access to openly-shared music etc., for better consumer experiences–we are aware that we may be being watched at any moment, and we self-oppress, and “the culpability of oppression shifts from the oppressor to the oppressed” (14).

But, some theorists (12 years ago) argue that the internet could become a liberatory tool. Brignall is skeptical: “Is the distribution and dissemination of ideas sufficient to foster and create a social revolution?” (15). Yes, he admits, the internet may give rise to counter-cultural ideas, but these are merely ideas! Merely words and codes! Not even the stuff of the hardware of the internet could stand in for the materiality of meeting in groups, interacting, and starting revolution through the exchange of these group values! For someone that has read Foucault, Brignall doesn’t really seem to grasp the idea of discourse. Yes, I say to him, the internet is a symbolic structure, but so is the meeting room that a counter-cultural group meets in, so is a government building from which democracy spreads its values, so is the 30-story building from which the corporation monitors internet use. Yes, the internet is a symbolic structure, but so is everything, so how does that devalue the internet’s liberatory potential? What is Brignall doing now that the internet has elected a President, spawned revolution around the world, even changed the face of TV commercials?

Yes, the internet has liberatory potential through the sharing of ideas. But, returning to my goal here, that sharing of ideas also opens them up to surveillance, panopticism, social control, self-oppression. So, is it really liberatory?

Brignall III, Tom. “The New Panopticon – The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control.” Theory & Science (2002). 


Read it in HTML.

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1 Response to Tom Brignall III, “The New Panopticon – The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control”

  1. Pingback: Social Media & The Digital Confessional: Full Outline | Digital A-Rae

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