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Artifacts of Memory and the Destruction of the Panopticon

by Brian Flory

At first glance, the phenomenon of social media seems to be a huge step toward the a panoptic society. While it is not the ideal type, it does fit many of the criteria. Take youtube as an example, displayed in this Modern Family clip.

Youtube has a very low barrier to entry, allowing easy upload of a variety of video  content, ranging from commercial music videos to 50 year old home movies that have been transferred to digital format. Everything old is new again, and it’s trivially easy to go digging through boxes of family memories in an effort to make yourselves youtube stars, to say nothing of recording footage specifically for upload, as is done here.

Once this is done, however, the audience is unlimited. Save for limiting a clip to adult users, there is little one can do to control who can view a clip posted to youtube. It is an important element in Foucault’s panopticon that the authority, the observer, be anonymous and interchangeable, that it might be anyone, at any time. In fact, “the more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are,” the more effective is the panopticon in its function of regulating its prisoners.

For this regulation is an effect of observation on the subject, inducing a “state of conscious and permanent visibility” that assures the automatic functioning of power. The word “permanent” is of particular note here, for while it was probably outside of Foucault’s conception, youtube provides practically permanent access to the artifacts of memory that are uploaded to it. That embarrassing behavior from your sister’s seventh birthday party? If someone else uploads it - say, your irate sister - you have no control over the clip, and your behavior is visible until your sister forgives you.

So, forever.

Though youtube does not and cannot isolate those who are on display as Foucault argues the panopticon does, I would argue that if casual surveillance becomes pervasive enough in culture, the regulating power of the observer can nonetheless be in force. If anyone might be recording anything at any time, the more we are aware of this fact, the more likely we are to moderate behavior to social norms. That is not to say we’ll “behave,” in the sense of obeying rules or laws, but that we will behave in a what we perceive to be the expected manner when confronted with a camera. This can range from chugging a beer at a party, smiling for the camera, or going girls gone wild.

Of course, all of these behaviors, no matter how innocent, can land one in trouble with someone. An employer might decide that such behavior isn’t appropriate in a representative of a company, a significant other might not want to date such a lush, or an insurance company might decide you’re too happy to continue receiving disability payments.

However, since viewing is always anonymous, and all behaviors are potentially available for viewing at any time in the future (who knows who might snap a picture at any moment and upload you to facebook?), a full consideration of the consequences of one’s behavior inevitably leads to conflicting social norms. It is no longer the case that one may only be observed by one observer, but that one may one day be observed by every observer, making compliance to each conflicting social norm impossible. While most employers might frown on heavy drinking, for example, the manufacturers of Absolut vodka might consider it brand loyalty, and abstention a lack of enthusiasm for the product.

Facing the impossibility of satisfying conflicting norms transmitted through various gazes, it becomes possible to ignore the shaping influence of the panoptic gaze. This ignorance is an important distinction from resistance, as if one resists any influence, one’s resistance is necessarily provoked and shaped by that influence. Instead, here, the proliferation of gazes over time opens a space in which the subject can assume it is simply impossible to satisfy all such observers, and therefore it may become possible to satisfy none of them.

Here, for example, the family is able to be happy in their own observation of the youtube “memory,” and not care what any other observer might think about parking lot ballet.

Modern Family- youtube

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The family shares a memory on youtube

from Modern Family (2009)
Creator: Steve Levitan
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media