Remember back in the day when you would get your hand cut off for stealing? Or how about having your limbs ripped off for murder? Or publicly hanged for basically any reason? Life used to have a lot civic sadism in it, didn’t it? Whatever happened to that? It’d be nice to think that we’ve become more civilized, that we’ve realized visceral punishment is not longer acceptable, but according to Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish, we’ve just gotten better at introducing mechanisms of control. We no longer need to torture people because we’ve learned that it doesn’t actually work all that great for keeping the population in line; what’s far more effective is constant surveillance. What deters crime isn’t any threat of punishment, it is the certainty of being caught.

Foucault describes the Panopticon, originated by Jeremy Benthem, as the ideal mechanism for social control. “It had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert.” However, the Panopticon is not just a method of ever-present observation, it also has to veiled. “This power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible.”

Imagine the Eye of Sauron, but wearing reflective sunglasses so you could never see when the eye was actually looking at you. The Orcs of Mordor, knowing full well the expectation on them to behave in a certain way, would instinctively conform to those expectations if they felt an eternal gaze resting on their shoulders, but also never knowing if that gaze has left them. That ambiguity, mixed with the certainty that observation is always possible, creates an unease in the mind that makes conformity to social rules simply the most comfortable choice to make.


Artist’s Representation

The dominant method of punishment has evolved from simply focusing on the body of the perpetrator to focusing on their soul. The Panopticon creates “a permanent account of individuals’ behaviour” to shame them, to degrade them, and to isolate them.

Now of course, the Panopticon is useless if the rules aren’t understood. Constant, unrelenting judgement needs to be a lifelong process enforced by those who hold the current power. “It is not the beautiful totality of the individual that is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” The ideal of the Panopticon is universal surveillance from birth, where the comfort of conformity molds our personalities before we even have the opportunity to develop genuine autonomy. “The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytic observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of examination.” Today, that indefinite interrogation exists on a global scale without controversy.

Today, we no longer require a sovereign gaze to hold us to account with our lives underneath a microscope. We have the technology to discipline ourselves under a new, social gaze, one that we submit to willingly. We put every aspect of our selves onto social media, to endure the judgment of the unrelenting, ever-present gaze of our peers.

Those who have grown up under the Digital Panopticon suffer under its gaze far more than those who developed autonomy outside of it. In the UK, polls have shown that social media leads to increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in those aged 14 to 24. Girls especially, driven to focus on their image by other social pressures, buckle further under the social gaze as they strive for perfect conformity; the biggest internet worry for 35% of girls aged 11-21 is comparing themselves with others.

We are ever-examined, ever-judged, ever-molded by the expectations of others, and we will exist under this social gaze for as long as the internet holds out. New cultures of shame have arisen. New methods of bullying and harassment follow us wherever we go; the Digital Panopticon is inescapable. And we love it. We embrace it as modern human connection, seeming to forget that we block out all the humans around us when we focus on an inert, lifeless screen. Who hasn’t edited a thought to avoid controversy? Or customized their photo albums to present a unified, perfect presentation of what is expected? We’ve put ourselves under ambiguous, yet constant surveillance, without the intervention of any elite group, simply because the technology is there. We’ve given up our souls to be up to date.

Big Brother is obsolete. We are our own oppressive regime.