Facebook is in trouble. In Congress, the great and the good—or at least the powerful and the not-yet-disgraced—profess themselves astonished and appalled at how the company collected and sold user data. If only there had been warning signs—such as, say, a business model that consists of collecting user data and then selling it.
The Facebook freak-out provides an outlet for fears regarding the digital environment we inhabit. A few companies control most channels of information. The gadgets that we use for convenience and entertainment also create the mechanisms for near-total surveillance, from tracking devices in our pockets to wiretaps in our homes—hi, Alexa! Someone besides Santa is watching and knows whether you have been naughty or nice.
Most of us are too insignificant, if not too innocent, to be of more than aggregate and advertising interest to malevolent online overseers. But we still fear that the lords of the internet will use the information we have given them against us, or sell it to those who would use it against us, or allow it to be stolen by those who would use it against us. Or perhaps sinister government figures, whether foreign and domestic, will be the villains of our online world. Regardless, we are uneasy about living in a digital panopticon.
The original Panopticon, designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was an architectural mechanism of power that allowed a central authority to constantly monitor those under its control. And as Michel Foucault observed, the unceasing possibility of observation induces “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Consequently, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.” Those held within the Panopticon never know when they are under observation, but they always know that they may be so.
Thus, they are not only subject to the manipulations of the overseer, but their existence within the Panopticon is itself a form of conditioning. As Foucault notes, those whose behavior is determined by the possibility of observation become part of the exercise of the power of their observer. The dungeon’s whips and chains become immaterial, residing instead in the psyches of the inmates who wield the implements of oppression upon themselves, and thereby cooperate in the use of power against themselves.
This phenomenon directs our attention to another aspect of the panopticon: it is designed so that its power can be exercised by anyone. The overseer need not be a sleepless eye, lidless and wreathed in flame. Others can share the power if they are admitted to the panoptic observatory. In the online panopticon, the algorithms deployed by the big tech companies to regulate content may deserve an Eye of Sauron motif, but these companies also rely on a horde of employees to curate and control content. Enormous power over public discourse and the global flow of information has been given to unknown, unaccountable and all-too-human tech workers. But that they might abuse this power is not our only, or even our primary, fear.
Unlike Bentham’s physical design, the inmates of the online panopticon can monitor each other. Our online lives make us the observers as well as the observed, with a permanent, globally accessible digital record. Far from being isolated in individual cells, a la the physical panoptic design, we have the power to harm each other socially, psychologically, economically, and even physically. And we use it.
This is not just a problem for professional writers and public figures like Kevin Williamson, who was fired one column into his career at The Atlantic after online outrage mobs screeched about his controversial past statements. It has become a near-daily occurrence for some previously anonymous wretch to become internet famous (or internet notorious). Variants on “X was fired after an offensive Facebook/Twitter/Instagram post” are regular news items, as are apologies from those who have run afoul of the mob. In one infamous incident a few years ago, a scientist was forced to tearfully apologize for wearing the wrong shirt on camera—after landing a probe on a comet millions of miles from earth.
This is the other side to our online anxiety. Facebook or Google taking over the world is a distant, speculative fear. Being harassed, humiliated, shunned and unemployed are immediate fears. We increasingly live in a digital panopticon ruled as much by mobs as by the overseers. Although the mob may not have access to private data, it can search through an online life until it finds people at their very worst, and then display that image, often further distorted, to the world. And keeping a low online profile is no surety of safety, as offline words and deeds can easily become targets of viral internet wrath. The fifteen minutes of fame has become a two-minutes hate.
It is a combination of tribal warfare and scapegoating. The people leading the mob have themselves often done much worse than whatever their victims are guilty of. But the point of a scapegoat isn’t justice—matching a proportionate punishment to a crime. It is extirpation of sin, the ritual casting out of the sins of the people, especially the sins of other people. For that purpose, it does not matter if the victim is particularly guilty, or those inflicting the torment righteous themselves. The point is that someone is punished, the mob’s rage is satiated for now, the tribe is victorious over a foe, and the gods are propitiated.
This sounds primitive, because it is. If the internet often descends into primitivism, it is because biologically we are primitives—overfed, easily-bored primates. We are stone-age wetware with space and information-age gadgets. What has evolved since the stone age is not our biology but our culture, of which scientific and technical knowledge is only a part. Without culture, we are naked apes with perhaps enough wit to use the tools invented by the clever among us. Amid a decadent culture, we are much worse.
The impulses and instincts of human life in small tribal groups and villages are being channeled through modern technology. Online outrage is mostly about the psyche of the enraged; it is the human equivalent of a small dog attacking a squeaky chew toy as if it were a rat—a pantomime of the vermin-killing they were originally bred for. Just as each new day is another opportunity for dogs to maul their toys, so too those addicted to online rage always need a new fix. The rush of self-righteous wrath—and the rush of power felt when a target collapses under the mob’s assault—is the point. To be cruel in a good cause is delightful. Consequently there is an online industry of outrage mob directors, always looking for a new target.
And there are plentiful opportunities for them. When life is increasingly lived online, and everyone has a camera in his pocket, the public/private distinction is eroded. Furthermore, the distinction between past and present is dissolved as the internet provides a ceaseless now. Everything that is online, or can be put online, is under the threat of judgment, which is always standing by in the form of an online swarm.
The fear of God’s divine judgment has given way to the fear of a panoptic mob. And since we might always be under observation, we alter our behavior accordingly, thereby extending the power of the mob. And because the justice of the mob is capricious and cruel, it has not led to greater civility, understanding, and kindness, but to resentment. Those who feel themselves sufficiently anonymous or insulated indulge their worst passions, and the online mobs become even more frenzied in response.
Ironically, the online panopticon tends to narrow and distort our perspectives. Because we are finite, we cannot actually observe all, so we tend to use our panoptic opportunities to confirm our views and belittle our opponents. News sources cater to audience prejudices. Every outrage by a member of the other tribe is treated as representative. Engagement with those with whom we disagree tends to be anonymous and antagonistic. Boundless information and communication increase polarization and deepen our loathing and distrust of each other.
We are afraid of tech titans and their minions, but we are even more afraid of each other. Living in a mob-run panopticon makes prisoners and rage monkeys of us all.
But we do not have to live in the Panopticon. There is an easy way to combat the social media moguls and online mobs: Delete your account.
Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.