04 June 2009

Will Social Media Enable the Digital Panopticon?

I attended a webcast, "Reconsidering Social Media," last week hosted by the O'Reilly media team and found myself pleasantly surprised at the philosophical turn of the conversation. I bet the Enlightenment philosophes turned over in their graves as we had a webcast "salon."

How did I get from social media to the Age of Enlightment? Trust me, the parallel is there. For starters, Joshua-Michele Ross brought up how the Enlightenment movement advocated freedom, liberty and progress at the very same time as the birth of prisons and asylums. In other words, the Enlightenment championed progressive ideals while institutions began to lockdown individuals and develop ways to control and manipulate society.

The panopticon is a prison 'in the round,' where the guard tower is at the center of a circle of cells (see above image). The idea is that prisoners can't tell when they're being watched and will therefore self-regulate their behavior to avoid additional punishment.

The webcast compared social media to panoptical prisons, but equated society to the guard tower. Using Twitter as a classic example, communicating your status to a group of semi-anonymous people can be a great channel for communication, but how honest will you be in front of that crowd? Will you really talk about how bad your day was or how much you can't stand sitting next to a certain colleague?

Another poignant issue raised: knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power - not as a liberating force. Cynical, huh?

The point is, right now, the social media movement seems liberating. As consumers find their voice online, businesses are beginning to listen. At the same time, as consumers become accustomed to sharing more information, privacy will become a hot commodity – potentially quite costly. After all, if a business doesn't know where you are and what you want, will you miss out on certain promotions? If everyone else has a voice, will you lose out for keeping quiet?

At the same time, companies and governments will continue to get more sophisticated about collecting, mining and harvesting information about what we do, what we like, what we eat, where we go, who we associate with and more. In other words, corporations will progress towards refined and effective means of manipulating our behavior online and in the cloud.

Is that bad? I'm not sure. After all, we still have free will, right? I definitely appreciated the focus on social media philosophical and cultural implications. These changes are inevitable. If you don't believe me, check out "25 Surprising Things That Google Knows About You."

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