A 21st century panopticon called Facebook.

How Foucault’s thought adapted to the digital revolution

Foucault. Dear old weird scholar, you lived in the middle of the XX century with all its dramatic brutality and, of course, you could not have imagined the astonishing growth of the internet and the daily use of social media, to whom we are addicted. Ironically, as history is used to be, you died in 1984, the year chosen by Orwell for the setting of his dystopian masterpiece.

However, we live in another century, in a completely different world, in which the paradigms built by social scientists of the previous century could difficultly apply to our times. This does not automatically imply that everything it has been written by scholars is useless and meaningless, it simply means that things are different and the way we are dealing with the internet, the way in which we are organizing our future digital society is something completely unexpected. What it is really revolutionary in terms of social dynamics is not the affirmation of internet, which could have been easily predicted decades ago, but how this affirmation was carried out by individuals. As we will see in this ordinary food for thought, many sociologists of the 20th century maintained a rather unilateral vision of society, that is really common for functionalist/constructivists thinkers, thus there is hierarchical order in society, a ruling elité with an active role to preserve their position and a vast and passive majority.

As we are well accustomed, in our fast and implacable digital world, we may open our preferred social media and we may express our ideas, share our pieces of life and let the world know our emotions. To be honest the majority is just watching those unashamed people who feel obliged to share everything about their life: “I am going there! yeah, I am eating this! oh, I’ve seen that! In my great opinion… “and so on, I am sorry if any reader recognized themselves in such stigmatized description, that is just a personal opinion of mine about people who think that sun, earth, and all planets revolve around them. Anyway, sorry for the digression, the point is that you can do it, you have the possibility to engage with other people, many other, with no kind of face-to-face relation, with much fewer constraints deriving from shame or embarrassment.

How many lions on Facebook and Twitter, how many keyboard warriors, ready to fight for their ideas until the last tweet while they are comfortably seated on their sofas. The quarrel is at hand and if the keyboard knight feel to be in disadvantage, he could turn off the device or block the opponent in order to avoid the only possible unwanted consequence of a lost dispute: public judgment, but, unless the screen fighter in question is a really popular figure, people on social media tend to forget things really fast, due to the enormous amount of subjects and issues channeled by these social platforms.

So, from the point of view of Interactionist and symbolic-interactionist theories, this is a revolution never seen before in human history. The way in which we interact each other has radically changed, technology has provided us with means to easily interact each other in huge groups on a daily basis without the need of any material expedient.

Therefore, let’s return to our beloved Foucault, who was an influential thinker, who had seen WWII but he did not have the possibility to assist at the dawn of the digital society and so he could not apply his theories to our different world.

One of the main drivers of his theories was the concept of rationalization, notion vastly treated by many social thinkers of the 20th century since rationalization has uncontestedly ruled Modernity. So starting from the way rationalization affects society, especially bureaucracy, he applies this process to the field of the prison in his famous work “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons”. In this work, he explains the historical evolution of punishments and prisons starting from the old use of torture against prisoners and criminals. The abandonment of torture practices is crucial for understanding the logic through which Foucault views society. Now the gentle and kind-hearted reader could think that humanity at a certain point in its history had recognized the brutality of such practices and consensually decided to stop practicing them, which is a wise reasoning, however, Foucault was a hard critic of the inconsistencies of his times and he would have loudly laughed at such honest argument. In fact, he argues that in no way torture was abandoned for “humanitarian reasons”, instead it was simply realized that torture is limited, ineffective and dysfunctional. In short, there are many unintended consequences of torture, the main is: first, public torture as an example of justice is quite contradictory, it portrays a deviant and cruel behavior, which could influence people to commit violence; secondly, the convict gains sympathy and support from population; third, the punishment is individual, private since the pain suffered by the convict is personal, it does not represent the affirmation of an abstract rule over a person and the blaming moves from convict to executioner.

Thus, prisons were created to make punishments more formal and the structure of the prison resembles the structure of rules. Convicts are punished by rules and no more by other people. In other words, discipline is imposed regulating and dictating every aspect of their lives.

The most important part of Foucault’s work is about the way it describes the prison as an example of “disciplinary society”, whose significance could be extended in broader societies, even if they would be a little bit dystopian scenario. In particular, I think it is interesting to focus this brief analysis on the concept of the panopticon, an 18th-century project of ideal prison, whose meaning is observing (opticon) all (pan). The panopticon is the perfect device for the disciplinary society since its power of observing everything has an incredible influence on convicts’ behaviors: they live in the constant fear of being observed, even if there is nobody who observed them, they could be seen in every moment, they are under constant surveillance. Their feelings are not so different from the ones of Winston Smith in the dystopian world of 1984, where he is constantly controlled.

Fortunately, such scenario is exaggerated, at least, in Western countries, while it may be an interesting issue the use of internet in the People’s Republic of China where servers have been nationalised, social media are replaced by government-controlled ones and there is a massive system of censorship, which share some similarities with Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. However, for the purpose of this analysis, we avoid considering the particular Chinese case and keep the focus on those well-known social media, such as Facebook.

Facebook is a firm, its source of earning are data. Data are information and information is critical to any advertising or marketing activity. Facebook does not steal any kind of data, people provide their own personal information to Facebook in exchange for the free use of the platform. Facebook’s ends are not political since money has no political colour, Facebook is just an enormous firm which has gained a strong, almost monopolistic, position. So, as you could rightly argue, what’s the point of Foucault’s theory and what it has to do with Facebook? The point is that power of the panopticon is inside Facebook, a social platform with 2 billion people data. The basis for the disciplinary society for Foucault is the possibility to monitor everyone in every moment and Facebook (in general social media) goes even beyond the capabilities related to simple observation, Facebook could track behaviours and record activities, it has more surveillance power than any other institutions in human history. Initially, such powers translated itself just into money for Zuckerberg and into ads for us, but in recent times things have changed, drastically changed.

Finally, politics comes and not just for communicative purposes. The scandal is that we have discovered a firm, Cambridge Analytics, selling “services” to political parties. Apart from the emphasis on strategic communication and its role in electoral campaigns, which is so common among spin-doctors, Cambridge Analytics had something more to offer. They had crucial information about users, they knew their annual income, in which neighboorhood they live, where they work, their social networks, their opinions, their feelings about the certain issues and so on. All this information allowed them to categorize electors, they knew what kind of political message would have won their approval ( often they are flaming and distorted messages with no worry for any ethical value). They influenced people in a deceitful way and they might have disrupted democratic institutions. The way through which they have “harvested” data was very elementary. They created an app, some 270,000 users signed up sharing their Facebook data and -voilà Cambridge Analytics obtained the data of 50 million individuals since among the data of the app users there were also the data of their friends, so also the data of people who have never used the app were gained. This is the network, the web, people have links, people interact and have an active role in the system.

This case is the paradigm of a truly revolutionary form of social control, a much more efficient disciplinary society where people unconsciously act in a way functional to the system. The more people have an active role and feel engaged in social media or the web, the more they feel free. However, the ability to influence people with contents meticulously built on their profile is pervasive and impressive. Such influencing process might be the greatest threat to our democracies and, if a private firm could easily fool Facebook, what will prevent other more powerful entities to do the same? Russian intelligence officers had affirmed several times that information war represents the most important military instrument of contemporary world. This thought was well summarized by the words of the director of the Russian state-led international news agency, Dmitry Kiselyov in an interview “if you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.”

Cambridge Analytics is important not for its effective role in elections, though it should not be underestimated, but because it has demonstrated the breaches in Facebook’s architecture., These breaches are a serious menace and they need to be repaired as soon as possible, although it is unlikely to stop the phenomenon since the genie is out of the bottle. Maybe we need to arm ourselves with cultural and critical means in order to escape the risk of being unintentionally manipulated. One thing is sure, Michel Foucault would never have imagined the immense surveillance power of social media and their capabilities to shape our society, as he would never have expected a 21st century panopticon called Facebook.