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The Digital Panopticon: Foucault and Internet Privacy Essay example

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The Digital Panopticon: Foucault and Internet Privacy
In 1977, Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish about the disciplinary mechanisms of constant and invisible surveillance in part through an analysis of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. The panopticon was envisioned as a circular prison, in the centre of which resided a guard tower. Along the circumference, individuals resided in cells that were visible to the guard tower but invisible to each other.
Importantly, this guard tower was backlit, and therefore prisoners were unable to tell for certain whether they were being watched or not at any given moment. Bentham championed the merits of the panopticon, conceiving it as a grand tool of social progress wherein distractions
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He writes that the purpose of architectural design shifts in the 18th century from a physicality to be seen into a physicality to facilitate the function of seeing, as demonstrated in the classroom, the hospital, the prison, the insane asylum and the military barracks. As subjects begin to consider themselves perpetually watched, they align their behaviour with the expectations of the (real or imagined) observers. He writes, "it is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.”2 For Foucault, to perceive that one is seen is to be controlled, and to be controlled is to be trained.
This architectural metaphor does not go unrecognized by the modern panopticon’s most prolific whistleblower, Edward Snowden. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong on June 6
2013, he says of the future of surveillance institutions, “it's gonna get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression” (emphasis added).3 For Snowden, as for Foucault, the architecture of a disciplinary mechanism, whether restricted to physically enclosed places like prisons or spread out in a worldwide web of digital interconnectivities, inheres oppressive observation. Humans generally behave differently under conditions of anonymity and solitude versus publicity and surveillance; privacy is a condition of life which
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