Matthew Nash

Exit the Dysopticon

Wikipedia: The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman.

To begin my thoughts on the re-emergence of the panopticon would be… well… predictable if I began with Beaudrillard. The End of the Panopticon and The Precession of Simulacra are my foundation, but they are also somewhat outdated. Certainly, as Beaudrillard writes, “it is TV that renders true. Truth that is no longer the reflexive truth of the mirror, nor the perspectival truth of the panoptic system and of the gaze, but the manipulative truth of the test that sounds out and interrogates, of the laser that touches and pierces, of computer cards that retain your preferred sequences, of the genetic code that controls your combinations, of cells that inform your sensory universe.” Yet, this distorted mirror of “reflexive truth” is also more than simulacra, more than “a single nebula whose simple elements are indecipherable, whose truth is indecipherable.”

We have, I think, passed beyond the end of the panopticon, and collapsed the simulacra. Our media are pervasive and unavoidable: our phones have become carriers of messages — some advertising, some political, most useless — as well as of interpersonal communication; our computers, televisions, radios and expandingly diverse broadcast media are all pipelines of ideas and of opinions;  our downtime, our vast first-world entertainment time is increasingly filled with external messaging.

If this were the only state of things, if the intrusions into our thought-space were benign, then the soft and eerily pervasive simulacra of Beaudrillard  would remain intact. Horrifying to previous generations, certainly, but not “scary” to the new kids, the ones with iPhones in middle school. The layering of advertising and entertainment, the blurring of reality with Reality TV and the loss of meaning of the word “reality” in both cases — these would be annoying but not consequential. We’d look back on this era as a time not unlike the arrival of the telephone, or the television. History would say this was when we transitioned from an old media to a new media. Another new media.

Yet, this is not exactly true. In a weird way, we have re-entered the panopticon. We can see all. We can read about the world in real time, scrolling through tweets and Facebook posts about events as they happen. We can see video of events in almost the same time we can see comedians mock the events. We don’t wait for information, and we don’t filter it.

Let me repeat that. We don’t filter our information.

Instead, we ask our technology to filter our information. We create the “Daily Me” that Cass Sunstein wrote about in his book way back in the ’90s. We sit at the controls of our panopticon and consume all the media we can, but really only what our devices and their filters give us. We hear our own voice echoed back to us over and over until we believe that what we hear is truth. Then we argue with others about how they are wrong because the echoes they hear in their own filtered panopticon are different than our echoes. We think we are right because we can always find large amounts of media that tell us we are right.

This is not the simulacra. This is not really a panopticon. This is the worst and most dystopian version of the media world we live in. This is a dysopticon.

As I type this, the U.S. government is shut down because Republicans in the House of Representatives heard what they wanted to hear and believed that people would rise up in support of their attempt to get rid of Obamacare. They looked down on their dysopticon and saw the world as they wanted to see it, reflected back as they wanted it to be. They based their decisions on this evidence, and are now shocked that things have turned against them.

Not that long ago, people were writing about epistemic closure because this same thing happened when Republicans were shocked that Mitt Romney was not elected as President.

Before that, Democrats could not believe that John Kerry lost to George W. Bush. And before that… and before that… and before that…

So what is the end of the dysopticon? Should liberals like me start watching Bill O’Reilly while conservatives flock to Rachel Maddow? Would that help anything?

Or should we all start looking away from the blaring, demanding screen to find a new conversation? Outside the panopticon and its dystopian distortions, outside the simulacra and its pleasing promises, lies an actual truth. This is not a liberal truth or a conservative truth; though it has many historical champions that both sides like to claim. For example, the teachings of Jesus are full of exhortations to feed the poor, treat women with respect, end political hierarchy and help those in need. Jesus even cast the money-lenders out of the temple and declared usury (charging interest) a sin. Yet, whose dysopticon echoes back these ideas from the public sphere?

Walk away from the dysopticon. What is sold is not what is needed, and what is told is not what is helpful. Our government is shut down because everyone thinks they see everything, hear everything, and therefore know everything. But all we are getting is our own echoes, our own ideas thrown back at us as a way to make sure we don’t hear other ideas. As other people and their ideas grow further apart from us, and our echoes are less and less similar to theirs, they become scary. They become the enemy. And they become vilified.

When we are all enemies, surrounded by our own dysopticon of echoed truths, there is no longer any way to become better. We lose the power to transcend problems through collective action when we become autonomous, hostile and eternally justified in both.

Categorised as: Rants

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