Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Photography and the Unconscious Panopticon: Part Four

The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in 1785, designed a theoretical prison system called the Panopticon. The design was revolutionary in that the prison cells radiate outward in a circle from a central point. At the center of the radius is a warden's room where prison officials have the ability to observe the prisoners at all times while not being seen themselves. The prisoners are isolated from each other by the walls that separate them and are further rendered powerless by their exposure to the constant gaze of the guards. The flow of visual information is always in the control of the prison system. Social isolation and constant surveillance remove all chance of revolt or retaliation from those imprisoned.

This radial model of isolation and visual flow of information has been recreated in some of the technological innovations of this past century. Through the explosion in the ubiquity of media saturation throughout western society, we have created a kind of cultural panopticon in which viewers are divided up into cells that are psychically and geographically separate from each other, each partaking in a radial flow of information inside of their own isolation. Only in the new model the flow of visual information is reversed; in this prison, the viewers receive the visual information, although they have little control over it.

Similarly to the prisoners in the original design, viewers are isolated from each other and incapable of influencing the central hub of power beyond their own individual voice. The visual information flows directly to them in their isolated position and is theirs to consume as they will. The media companies at the hub have tools such as Neilson ratings and so on that allow them to see the aggregate responses of viewers while the viewers themselves have little to no vision into the worlds of the content producers.

Since the primary goal in the media industries is market share, content is carefully crafted to gather as much attention as it can. It does this in part by making the consumption of its programs easy and largely unchallenging. They are designed to attract a broad audience and they do so by appealing to common denominator qualities and unconscious content. Content is designed to evoke familiar and desired affect in a somewhat predictable manner without upsetting much in terms of the form of the experience.

The unconscious effects of the panopticon stretch out beyond the realm of television, radio and print into every aspect of image and content distribution. At the other far end of the spectrum from the distribution model of the television is the curent evolution of social media and networking on the internet. With such complete lateral freedom to reach across boundaries and experience such diversity in the enormous amount of information that is out there, one would think that the radial model of isolation would be broken. But it seems that people in the face of such freedom and choice are not reaching laterally across the internet but rather are dividing up into ever more homogeneous groups. Instead of seeking diversity within the breadth of the internet, people are trending to seek out ideas and information that is similar to or reinforces what they already possess. In effect, the radial walls of the panopticon divide the experience of the internet, only this time the barriers are being established by the choices of individuals as much as the limiting forms of the medium.

The above sketch is by Jeremy Bentham, courtesy of Wikipedia. You can see a contemporary rendering here.

This is part four in a summer serial posting. Stay tuned.


Jason/ARCHETYPE said...

I love reading these, really do.

You might like this: http://www.thebigsort.com/

Aric Mayer said...


Thank you for the link. It is so true, this dividing up and homogenizing of the country. My big fear is that it is increasing a latent sense of fundamentalism. All those who are not like me then become an "other," capable of being vilified, scapegoated, and having all sorts of unconscious content heaped upon them. This is truly destructive to democracy.