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  • Vanshika Singh

The Digital Panopticon: Power Play of Technology and Knowledge




You search for a product online, say puffer jackets, and the next day you are bombarded with ads for puffer jackets on almost all online social platforms you use. Ever wondered why that happens? This is surveillance capitalism. You are being watched, data about you collected and monetised. Who is watching, what happens to this data, who collects and, who uses it? This article explores these questions while revealing how control of information and knowledge consolidates power.


In the alluring dance of the digital era, it is easy to lose sight of the shadows that lurk behind the screens. This spectacle conceals the power that is at play. Foucault’s idea of disciplinary power becomes relevant here, which is a technique to create mechanisms of surveillance to control individuals. Observation, as a form of power, shapes behaviour and pushes individuals to conform to societal norms. For example, surveillance cameras in public spaces influence people to alter their behaviour. Foucault argues that erstwhile institutions such as armies and prisons have observed and controlled behaviour through ranks, timetables and even architecture (Foucault, 1975). Bentham’s panopticon can help us picturise it. It is a central observatory that constantly views everything, but nobody can see who is observing, and thus serves as a symbolic representation of disciplinary institutions. Individuals are constantly observed and assessed against a norm of expected behaviour.  Any deviation away from the range of ‘normality’ is viewed as ‘abnormal’ and the individual is then pushed towards what is considered as normal. For this normalization, there’s examination. In contemporary times, social media platforms constantly collect user data of their content consumption and engagement. Algorithms of such platforms normalize a certain behaviour and then promote or supress content in accordance with their established norms.


Surveillance Capitalism

These control mechanisms in contemporary times find resonance in a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff- surveillance capitalism. Corporations exert power through collection, monitoring, and exploitation of personal data for their economic gains. Zuboff draws parallels between the industrial revolution and surveillance capitalism and argues that while the former established new modes of production with exploitation of factory-based labour, the latter has introduced production of behavioural modification where individuals have become raw material leading to exploitation of their digital identity (Zuboff, 2019). For instance, Target used extensive data analysis of customers and their purchase histories to identify pregnant women (a vulnerable period). It implemented specified marketing and promotional strategies to influence shopping behaviours of such women, nudging them to buy more at the store. This instrumentalization power demonstrates that how corporates wield power through strategic use of information. This power is set to be more embedded in our lives with the increasing use of sensory items such as, connected toys, cameras, smart watches etc, thus also increasing sources for data to be commodified.


Thus, being visible and observed is central to exerting power, becoming means of discreet surveillance and control. When put in the digital context, this visibility translates to more than just being observed. It becomes about accumulation of behavioural data. Every like, comment or share on a social media app; a transaction on any online payment platform; an online engagement or any interaction generates data. Data here could include basic demographics, socio-economic information, or even deeply personal data. Such data is then analysed and interpreted to observe and codify implicit behavioural patterns.


Talks of safeguarding privacy are always happening yet rights of privacy have been eroded time and again. Be it the data breaches of LinkedIn in 2012, Yahoo in 2014, Aadhar in 2018, Alibaba in 2022, or Petro Canada in 2023. The ‘terms of use’ on websites and apps are often changing, cumbersome to comprehend and filled with legal jargon leading to users not fully grasping the security consequences. It results in a form of ‘choosing ignorance out of frustration’ (Zuboff, 2019). The landscape of surveillance has also shifted with the emergence of a broad range of surveillance actors such as law enforcement agencies, data brokers, retailers, credit reporting agencies and, healthcare providers among others. This means more potential abuses of power and threatening privacy through mass data profiling. Also, governments engage with private entities to collect, store, and use the data collected. In other words, the government has become the client. Traditionally governments were responsible for data collection but now they outsource data services leading to increased chances of data exploitation and lack of accountability with private entities.


Power and Knowledge

An important issue with respect to power and technology is the idea of knowledge. According to Foucauldian understanding, knowledge is power, and power is knowledge. It implies that control of knowledge becomes a source of power. So those in positions of authority hold power to influence what knowledge is considered legitimate. The asymmetry of knowledge renders power to the system, dictating norms and maintaining existing power structures. In contemporary times, big corporations and tech giants have notoriously collected and exploited data of users without giving control or consent to the users. Digital experiences and the data arising from it is capitalised upon. For instance, Facebook provided Cambridge Analytica with user data that it had obtained from a ‘personality type quiz’ on the platform. This data was used to micro target and profile voters in the United States in 2016 elections, with tailored political advertisements. 


Therefore, organisations with the resources to invest in data collection and analysis consolidate power to exert influence. They control and direct the flow of information. So, power centralises in sites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon etc. even though internet and technology were supposed to be decentralised.  This brings attention to Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto which advocated that ‘information is power.’  Swartz backed the idea of public access to knowledge of academic journals, which is often guarded by paywalls. He argued for ‘public access to public domain.’ This is not merely making information or knowledge public but also redistributing the power associated with controlling such knowledge. So, when Swartz accessed JSTOR’s (an online journal) database, he resisted the power centralised in such journals by calling for democratisation of knowledge that should be inherently public.


Data is a currency of control in contemporary era of surveillance capitalism. Foucault’s ideas compel us to remain vigilant, question normalization and influence of the digital panopticon, enabling individuals to shape their digital experiences.


References:

 Duhigg, Charles (2012) ‘How Companies Learn Your Secrets’ in The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2012. www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html.   

 

Foucault, Michel (1975) ‘The Means of Correct Training’ in Discipline and Punish. pp 175-190.

 

moviemaniacsDE. “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz | Full Movie (2014).” YouTube, 1 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vz06QO3UkQ

 

Zuboff, Shoshanna (2019) ‘Home or Exile in the Digital Future’ in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. pp 10-30.


About the Author

Vanshika Singh is a first-year student in MA in Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy. Her interests lie in health, technology and environment.


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