Thursday, January 10, 2008

Panopticon Tech

I read Michael Foucault’s “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish two years ago while thinking about a proposed law that would incarcerate illegal immigrants for one year before final deportation. The chapter offered a morbid historical grounding in the rise of our country’s burgeoning prison industrial complex. While reading this week, however, the assignment was to think about the chapter, along with “The Eye of Power: A Conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot” (and Foucault), and what they have to do with teaching with technology. By the end of the fifth line of “Panopticism,” I was engrossed in an allegorical reading of digital culture—video games, internet security, and synchronous messaging, among other possibilities. This seemed too easy, too trite, but I let my mind follow the storyline and thought about issues associated with computer technology, having no doubt that the two essays were applicable to the task.

The readings offer ways to think about the virtual world. Describing digital space in scientific terms is for the scientists. Instead I think about it visually as a vast nothingness filled with zeros and ones having the potential to form almost anything conceived by the designer. On a Second Life (SL) map, areas of space owned and occupied by gamers might resemble an existing feature on Earth, like Walden’s Pond. I haven’t looked to see how much space is now owned by SL users, but I imagine that the edges of occupied territory look a little like a quilt, with fathomless black spots marking spaces not yet dominated by human-controlled avatars building buildings and gardens and universities. Beyond the ragged edges is nothing. I wonder whether that nothingness is woven together with the binary system of program languages. To me it feels uninhabitable and foreboding, like Foucault’s description of a closed town—“It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space”—although individuals can roam and even fly around (“Panopticism” 195). (No quarantine in SL of which I’m aware.) Still, a touch of paranoia touched me when I wandered to the fringes, as though I might risk my “life, contagion or punishment” (195).

I wonder…has anyone made a video game from Foucault’s description of a plague-ridden town?

What if the plague was not physical but intellectual? We might rewrite one of Foucault’s statements to read: “Everyone locked up [at his computer], everyone at his [screen], answering to his name [on instant messaging] and showing himself when asked [by clicking off Appear Offline] – it is the great review of the [wired] and the [unwired].”[i] If, as Foucault writes, “Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder,” can we project the internet as the plague-filled town? Should we? Foucault goes on to write, “The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing, the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city” (198). Certainly the internet is governed by hierarchies. Surveillance can be assumed, and our own software observes what we do, tells us when we foul up or are being attacked by Trojans, and what many of us do in our digital city of Internet is write.

Foucault eventually describes Bentham’s Panopticon, and along with his description of his research on the penal system, I recalled two stories. First, I think about the description I’ve heard from a family member of a maximum security cell block. If I remember correctly, the cellblock is circular and holds twelve inmates, all behind electronically locked cell doors. In the middle of the room is a circular bulletproof Plexiglas(?) cylinder, the guards’ watch room and only accessible from above. Between the cylinder and the cells is a donut-shaped no-man’s-land, used to escort one inmate at a time to the yard for one hour of exercise. My description isn’t complete, but enough so that a parallel can be made to the panopticon, with the exception that each prisoner can see the guards through the clear core wall. Second, the film Insomnia comes to mind. The Alaskan summer night, never more than dim, disorients Al Pacino in the role of a detective hunting down a murderer played by Robin Williams. In this sense, the Land of the Midnight Sun operates as a panopticon in that “[f]ull lighting and the eye of a supervisor [Pacino] capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap” (200). However, the movie plot plays with the idea of the “automatic functioning of power” in that Williams remains alert but Pacino is addled : Williams doesn't suffer from insomnia as does Pacino (201).

In “The Eye of Power” from Power/Knowledge, Foucault discusses space in terms of politics and management. If I, as a teacher, influence my students to use technology through pedagogical applications, I must consider how this use will affect their education, careers, and personal lives. I must think about ethical considerations, in other words.

Why should we read Foucault in a course about teaching with technology? Foucault writes that “‘Discipline’…is a type of power, a modality for its exercise…a technology” (215). His writing presents one theoretical approach to technology that may be helpful in forming a pedagogical viewpoint.

  1. Are the internet and computer technology “disciplinary programme[s]” and if so, do they again transform the inherent power? (“Panopticism” 205)
  2. What are the overt and covert aims of powerful technologies? How do these compare to the religious, economic, and political aims that arose between the Counter-Reformation and the July monarchy? (“Panopticism” 212)

[i] The meaning of this sentence has been altered from Foucault’s intent. See page 196 for the original.

1 comment:

kristin said...

This is an incredibly rich post--it's great to see the ways you've connected various ideas from the text to each other and to real world examples.

I quite like your rewrite of Foucault: “Everyone locked up [at his computer], everyone at his [screen], answering to his name [on instant messaging] and showing himself when asked [by clicking off Appear Offline] – it is the great review of the [wired] and the [unwired].” I think, in some ways, relating technology to the panopticon is an easy, and as you say at the beginning, almost "trite" move. Yet, unraveling this thread and relating it to our own intentions of teaching w/ technology and our own understandings of how technology finds its way into the warp and woof of life...that's the interesting stuff, and the hard stuff.

Keep up the great work on your posts.