Let’s destroy the panopticons

Here is what Chris Locke wrote about panopticons in Chapter One of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Read closely:

The New Marketplace: Word Gets Around

In the late eighteenth century, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined a little nightmare he called a “panopticon” — a prison in which the inmates could be seen at all times, but couldn’t see their jailers. A few hundred years later, mass media inverted this scenario. The imprisoning TV eye now sees nothing, yet we all watch it for clues to our cultural identity. But what would happen if each of these isolated prison cells were somehow wired to all the rest so the inmates could observe their overseers? Not only see them, but also speculate about their motives, and compare notes on their behavior and intentions? It’s already happened. That’s what the Internet does. Suddenly the overseer is like an insect mounted on a pin for all to view.

While corporations are still only marginally aware of what’s being said about them online, all but the totally out-of-it are uncomfortably aware these conversations are taking place, and that the control they had in the days of broadcast has evaporated. We’re not just watching the ads these days, we’re publicly deconstructing them. In this context, intranets look like salvation to many companies, their protective firewalls a form of corporate encryption designed to insulate against a scary new kind of market: unpredictable, unmanageable, unwilling to be manipulated.

At one point the Cluetrain Manifesto says: “Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you.”

That was in 1999. Back then corporations were indeed clueless. Not any more. Now most of the big ones (hell, maybe all of them) want to run their own panopticons, with us as the insects, skewered on a pin in the middle. This is now the mission of marketing and advertising in its most psychotic forms. I mean psychotic literally. Surveillance-based marketing and advertising are so disconnected from reality that they don’t even know how awful they look, running their panopticons.

Look up advertising panopticon on Google in a virgin browser (one not guessing at you based on Google’s or Bing’s panoptical surveillance systems), and here are your top results, straight out of the zeitgeist:

Search Results

  1. The Google Panopticon Is Set to Become Even More Omniscient
    6 days ago – Instead of using tiny trackers that dozens of companies attach to websites to monitor people’s browsing, Google is considering a switch to a 
  2. Joel Bakan: The Panopticon | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters
    www.adbusters.org › MagazineThe Big Ideas of 2012‎Jan 4, 2012 – Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download. The Panopticon (which means all-seeing) is a model prison devised by 
  3. Which Gawker Advertisers Are “Sensitive” About the NSA’s Panopticon
    gawker.com/which-gawker-advertisers-are-sensitive-about-the-nsa-5119…‎Jun 7, 2013 – The PRISM revelations continue to reverberate throughout the online world, reaching down into the bowels of Gawker Media’s ad-slingers.
  4. Panopticism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticism‎Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon as a circular building with an observation tower …. In one of the “Eyes of New York” ads introduced by MTA, close up 
  5. GOOGLE’S PANOPTICON – University of Maine
    by A Gammon – ‎Related articlesexpression of the Panopticon in history. Panopticon and with nobler intentions: that can reveal her browsing history, advertisements she clicked on, items 
  6. Lyon: From Big Brother to Electronic Panopticon
    home.fnal.gov/~annis/digirati/otherVoices/Lyon.html‎ Ironically the Panopticon, now the main alternative to Big Brother, started life as …. Those targeted for direct mail and other forms of personalized advertising are 
  7. Kids’ apps collect data, expand the Panopticon – People’s Campaign
    www.constitutioncampaign.org/blog/?p=13955‎Jul 6, 2013 – Crucial to Foucault’s interpretation was the idea that the Panopticon in of these apps, the likely use of the collected date is “just advertising.”.
  8. American panopticon – countryside – homesteading – self-reliance
    www.countrysidemag.com/96-6/american_panopticon/‎An advertising company called Red Pepper has developed a panopticon technology called Facedeals. Consumers who sign up for the program upload their 
  9. Panopticon | Commonweal Magazine
    https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/panopticon‎Aug 28, 2013 – I almost put down The Panopticon by the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan. The language was rife with Scottish dialect slang, and the more familiar 
  10. Internet Surveillance: A virtual panopticon? – Richard Joyce
    learn.bowdoin.edu/courses/…/internet-surveillance-a-virtual-panopticon/‎Apr 19, 2010 – This is a panopticon: a prison design conceived by Thomas Bentham. As for the more commercial advertisements, I guess I’d like to think that 
  11. Ad related to advertising panopticon Try Google Advertising
    1 (855) 424 2163 www.google.com/AdWords
    Bring new visitors to your website. We’ll help you get started – free.‎

That’s on Google itself. Try it on DuckDuckGo (an “anonymous browser”) and you’ll get these as well:

  1. behavioural advertising | Panopticon Blog
  2. Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon …
  3. Media, Control, and the Panopticon « Media Studies: Ideas
  4. The Panopticon

Chapter 3 of The Intention Economy is titled “Your Choice of Captor.” The opening quote is Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them. The source is Frederick Douglass. He was talking about slavery. I’ll compress the chapter to its framing one-liners: The World Wide Web has become a World Wide Ranch, where we serve as calves to Web sites’ cows, which feed us milk and cookies… For free markets to mean more than “your choice of captor,” we need new systems that operate on the principle that free customers are more valuable—to both sellers and themselves—than captive ones. Improving slavery does not make people free. We need full emancipation. That’s the only way we’ll get free markets worthy of the name.

What we have today online (and to a large degree offline as well) is not a free market. We have captive ones Bruce Schneier calls feudal:

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

These feudal systems are centralized. And they are not limited to the economic sphere.A generation ago the great teacher John Taylor Gatto identified compulsory education as panoptical system for surveillance of children. “Experts in education have never been right,” he said. “Their ‘solutions’ are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization.” Likewise in our feudal “solutions” in technology.

The Internet we wrote about in Cluetrain was a decentralized one. In the bedrock beneath the castles of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it still is. We are that bedrock, and we need to give the market an earthquake — not to bring the castles down, but to make them respectful of our humanity and our power to bring far more to the marketplace than our eyeballs wallets and status as captive vassals.

We need business to value free customers more than captive ones. When that happens, the panopticons will be obsolete.

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One Response to Let’s destroy the panopticons

  1. dave täht says:

    Hmm. And I thought stross had used the panopticon analogy first. Not the first hit but prophetic all the same:


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