Panopticonarchy

I learnt about another two panopticons the other day. One is a watch that quantifies everything you do, physically. Treating oneself as big data is a very twenty first century thing to do. It’s the equivalent of a nineteenth century scientist dosing herself with her new experimental vaccine, but now risking nasty civic information death instead of horrible biological death. It also recommends itself as what Jamais Cascio calls a participatory panopticon: it is generated cooperatively by individuals, though once the information is collected it will presumably want to be liberated, and expensive. The prospects for medical advancement and self-empowerment seem rather marvelous; the prospects for medical insurance, whether state or private, seem less so. It all makes my use of runkeeper to track exercise look as wheezing and amateurish as the runs themselves.

The second is the British Library’s endearingly batty plan to store everything on the UK web. An enlightened quirk of British copyright law already gives them the right to do this, and it’s a beautiful, public spirited, idea. This can perhaps be grouped together with various initiatives worldwide to open access to government data, driven from within and without the state itself.

Let’s add to these the leviathans in the room – the security state panopticons. The US and UK ones we know of courtesy of Mr Snowden, the Chinese system has been in the open for some time, and presumably everyone in a uniform globally is at it by now, wrongly or wrongly.

Jeremy Bentham conceived of The Panopticon as a prison where everything a prisoner did could be observed, in order to reform him. That isn’t what we’re building today. We have a system of fledgling panopticons, built by competing interests, used for interacting institutional ends: a Panopticonarchy.

I’d say this system will be hard to completely avoid, and to do so successfully will be the equivalent of today’s statelessness. You will have to be like Hamlet and go live in a nutshell, and most people won’t want to. The choice for most individuals, already, is which panopticons to support and which to pollute, constrain and resist.

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