The Panopticon Inverted
Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 11/30 at 09:12 AM
The recent release of thousands of diplomatic telegrams by Julian Assange’s guerilla data outfit Wikileaks is their most high-profile project yet. But Assange is clearly more than a mere data terrorist. He is in fact helping to change the world, perhaps for the worse, probably also for the better. It’s about data freedom.
The media are full of hand-wringing, but what if we were witnessing the beginning of a new paradigm? It’s starting to look like a new world in which information is just much, much more available than it has ever been before. People are releasing their genomes to the world—posting their genetic sequence on the internet, where anyone can see digital correlates of their predispositions, proclivities, and politics.
The notion of patenting genes is coming under fire, the latest in an assault on the whole idea of intellectual property.
Old-school, twentieth-century media industries book publishing, recorded music and film, and newspapers are reeling. Brick and mortar and paper and plastic are becoming niche items. In 20 years, we will still buy some books and some vinyl LPs (probably not CDs or DVDs). But those companies that are surviving are those that distribute digitally, and those that embrace, rather than fight, the trends toward digitization and openness.
Facebook is eroding the notion of personal privacy. Yes, opinion is still in flux on this. But on the whole, we expose ourselves to friends and even strangers far, far more than people ever have, and we break down the borders between business and private life. My Facebook list contains professional colleagues, neighbors, high-school mates, former girlfriends, and family. For the most part, they all see the same side of me.
So the new digital media prove that you can make money by giving things away. Wikipedia proves that freely volunteered information can be surprisingly robust and reliable. Facebook and the personal genome project prove that we can maintain our autonomy and safety while being far more open about ourselves than we would have dreamed possible, twenty years ago. We live in an age of unprecedented openness and incomprehensible streams of data.
Is Wikileaks part of this trend? Are we witnessing the spread of data openness into the world of international diplomacy? In a global economy, is it conceivable that the breakdown of twentieth-century security structures is not only possible—but necessary?
Wikileaks is inverting the panopticon—Jeremy Bentham’s plan for any disciplinary institution (prison, school, hospital, office) in which all the inmates can be watched at any moment—without the watcher being seen. No one knows when they might be being watched. All they know is that they could be being watched at any moment. Foucault analyzed the power relationships of the Panopticon in his Discipline and Punish, and in a recent article I related a literal panopticon—the Stateville Penitentiary, in Illinois—to a set of biomedical experiments carried out on prisoners there.
In the inverted panopticon, the inmates are watching those in power. The “inmates”—the public—can see everything that those who pull the strings are doing. No one knows when Wikileaks will strike. All we know is that they could strike at any moments. If I were a diplomat, I would write my telegrams a lot more carefully now.
My mom told me always to wear clean underwear when I went out, in case I ended up in the hospital, and to speak as though someone might be listening. If you don’t say things you’re ashamed of or don’t want others to hear, it changes the game. You may get fewer surprise parties, but you’ll know who does and doesn’t like you. Which is kind of comforting.
Also, since this is a historical blog, I’ll point out what a boon this kind of data freedom could be for specialties such as diplomatic history. Scholars may be able to write a whole new species of analysis on international relations.
Still and all, I want to see Julian Assange’s genome online.