Facebook as panopticon

No-one knows about the time me and my pimply mates raided our parents’ liquor cabinets and made what turned out to be Piña Spewada cocktails.

And the night I wore a black plastic garbage bag teamed with a bevy of studded belts to the local Blue Light disco?

Never happened. (Though if it had, my 7.34pm wardrobe malfunction would have put Janet-Jackson’s-Super-Bowl-boob-job to shame.)

One of the big advantages of being an adolescent in the ‘80s was being able to do stupid stuff knowing it wouldn’t be broadcast to the entire universe via some sort of information superhighway.

Memories were short and photos were expensive.

These days, however, the omnipresence of electronic eyeballs mean we live in an opt-in e-version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison.

These days, all that stupid stuff I did would have been all over the internet before I’d even finished doing it.  Me or one of my stupid mates would have blogged, wiki-ed or whacked a mobile phone video up on YouTube, and voila: unemployable forever.

A similar phenomena exists with the incautious utterance. Humans have always been guilty of making rash remarks and delinquent declarations during bouts of social Tourettes. But now these can leave forensic trails that last for an electronic eternity.

And while it’s tempting to imagine that the sheer weight of the world’s combined confessions and status updates offer safety in numbers, the extraordinary search capabilities of the web 2.0 era make it a cinch to tease out a single signal from the noise.

Organisations such as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers are reporting a steep increase in the dirt gathered from sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter during de-coupling disputes.

Consider the dad who declared himself child-free on a dating site while seeking primary custody of his nonexistent children. Or the mum who denied in court that she smoked marijuana yet posted partying, pot-smoking photos of herself on Facebook.

The primary issue in these cases obviously involves idiocy rather than privacy. But they still raise important questions about contemporary methods of surveillance as well as our discomfit with the warty all-ness of human nature.

First up: discipline and punishment. In many ways Facebook is reminiscent of the panopticon – that mind-f— of a prison designed by English theorist Jeremy Bentham back in 1785.

Bentham’s big idea was to build a circle of cells around an observation tower containing an inspector who could see but not be seen. The illusion of this pervasive gaze was supposed to keep inmates from running amok or storming anything.

Bentham went so far as to claim his jail’s prisoner-pacifying powers would work even if no inspector were present because the watching would be left to the watched.

Despite these bold, wage-saving possibilities, the panopticon’s biggest legacy turned out to be philosophical rather than architectural. French thinker Michel Foucault certainly made much metaphorical mileage out of the idea that modern societies control their citizens via constant surveillance – or at least the possibility of constant surveillance.

Facebook is fascinating in this regard because users volunteer for perpetual visibility then either forget or fail to care that punishment may be meted out for transgressions.

Some users – such as those who post risqué imagery of themselves in minimal livery – seem to get off on their constant audience. (Though Bentham can be forgiven for not factoring this into his penal plan given that exhibitionism didn’t start flashing its private parts in scientific literature until the late 19th century.)

Other Facebookers may know in theory that they could be observed by hostile spies, yet still operate under the assumption they’re speaking only to likeminded mates.

An example is David Barker who was dumped as the Liberal Party candidate for the NSW Labor seat of Chifley after he accused Labor of bringing the nation “closer to the hands of a [M]uslim country” via his Facebook page.

Presumably Barker assumed his readers would regard such comments as being not only Fair Enough but also Just Tickety Boo.

He was wrong on both counts.

(As a point of interest, this Rubenesque Christian later told the media that God wouldn’t have called him to run if he didn’t expect him to win. While the big guy in the sky has yet to stage any obvious intervention, he may simply be working his way up to a well-aimed lightening bolt or pithy tweet.)

Anyway, it’s hard to argue with the democratic benefits offered by Barker’s online revelation. In a political era where packaging is privileged over policy, it gave voters in his electorate more to work with than deodorised, press release spin.

But should those of us who aren’t standing for public office also practice constant self-censorship to prevent our histories ever holding us hostage? Does the unguarded or ill-considered comment offer a glimpse of someone’s true nature, or simply their unguarded or ill-considered nature? And how much weight should we give a person’s past when it comes to conclusions about who they are in the present?

If we own a computer, we can’t avoid leaving electronic footprints. But we can bear in mind that our online offerings have multiple – as well as unknown future – audiences in the form of parents, potential employers, peer group frenemies and so on.

School kiddies, in particular, may need gentle reminders that happy snaps of drunken shopping trolley racing through the grounds of the Peaceful Custard Nursing Home are unlikely to seem so hilarious to bosses-to-be.

It’s also worth reflecting on the concept of personal consistency. If our sleazy social networking pages are utterly at odds with the upright persona we’re trying to present in politics or in court, perhaps the problem isn’t the evil of the internet but our integrity.

That said, there’s no escaping the fact that human natures aren’t static but in states of flux, and that even the most “respectable” in our ranks may have once smoked drugs or cracked onto someone inappropriate at an absinthe party.

Lelia Green is a communications professor at Edith Cowan University in Perth. She thinks we should cut ourselves more slack for the craziness of our youths, as well as the carelessness, stupidity and ignorance we all display on a daily basis.

“The problem with being on one’s best behaviour for life is that it gets in the way of authentic communication,” she says. “We would do well to remember that what it is to be human comes before what it is to be digital.

“A single Facebook entry is almost never the final word on a person’s life and thoughts.”

- originally published in The Australian on 31-07-2010.

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