Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is the information panopticon? Discussion with reference to the use of ICT in organization of work

There has been much ballyhoo about the liberating and decentralizing aspects of new media technologies like the Internet and ubiquitous computing, but the fact remains that new information technologies will be every bit as effective for established organizations as they will be for garage e-zine publishers.

It still remains to be seen to what extent the new media technologies will in fact increase the centralization of power by facilitating unprecedented monitoring and observation.

I have explored this idea through the virtual construction of Bentham's panopticon as an information space. The user of the space is put in the central place of the information collector and controller, inverting our traditional role as the subject of observation. The faceless prisoners of this space are held in darkness, illuminated only by roving spotlights that prevent them from observing their observers, reinforcing Foucault's idea of a citizen who "is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication" (Foucault, 1979). The spotlights never illuminate the observer, but they probe the darkness to find prisoners who can be examined to divulge their information, in the form of hypertext links.
This process of total information through casual examination is unique to a modern society. The space is constructed to yield this information to anyone in the right position, not just to the traditional bearer of physical power. The panopticon is "a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers" (Foucault 1979). The older physical concepts of information through torture and control are no longer relevant in the panopticon, where any authorized person may casually examine every aspect of life through access to electronic transaction records and direct monitoring of electronic communication.

Many companies talk about the importance of being transparent and communicating with their customers openly and honestly. Many say they do it, but there are still a lot of companies that don’t practice this and assume that they can still dupe their customers. Well, thanks to social media, you can’t. I want to take a model developed by a French philosopher (bear with me!) to demonstrate the importance of being honest in your company both offline and online and show you just how much power the consumer has.
Michel Foucault first developed the idea of the panopticon in his popular work ‘Discipline and Punish’. In it, he explores systemic control of society and how this has evolved from the middle ages. He introduces one concept, that was later examined by Christopher Locke in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Foucault introduced the idea of the panopticon, as a theoretical way to control people within various organisations, namely prisons.
The panopticon is a method of controlling subjects without the need for chains or multiple guards. It works by erecting a central watch point at which one person observes the surrounding subjects, without the subjects being able to see who’s observing them. One person is needed to control the subjects, because crucially, no-one knows when they are being watched. You are forced to abide by the rules all the time ; the subjects begin to self-discipline. The original diagram explains the concept, below.

People are now in a position of control because of the ability to build communities online. Companies should know that they’re no longer dealing with one single, unconnected individual, but that now all it takes is one tweet or one blog post and your organisation is out there for all to see. Companies that don’t recognise this will soon get left behind and businesses now have to realise that they can be observed from multiple points at all times. The best thing you can do is to communicate with your observers (see Amazon – it’ll only get worse if you don’t) and realise that you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes anymore. If your product is no good, people will soon know about it.


Akash Mondal

No comments:

Post a Comment