Life inside the digital panopticon

Rebecca Barnett writes: Re. “Data retention keeps us safe” (yesterday). I would like to point out the simplistic nature of Les Heimann’s comments regarding data-retention being something that only terrorists should worry about. This is not only in relation to the question what is terrorism and the idea that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter but to a bigger picture idea of freedom.

To support my argument I would like to draw the reader’s attention to ancient Chinese theories of despotism, which saw that political power depended on how much knowledge was held on people, and the resulting transparency with which these people were forced to live. Making our way to our more recent past we come to the 18th century and Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social theorist, who designed the Panopticon. The concept of the design is to allow one watcher to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether they are being watched or not, forcing them into compliance. In 1979 Foucault wrote of the design of Benthem’s guard tower:

“By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.”

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.

In 1948 Norbert Wiener coined the term cybernetics, defined as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”. In 1989 a British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the internet. The world wide web was born.

Fast forward to today and companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon collect vast quantities of information about us every time we use their services. More often than not this information is handed over willingly in exchange for the use of their services. The internet has made possible a modern-day panopticon that requires no walls. Digitalisation, as Weiner predicted, facilitates the human use and human control of human beings. I do not consider this to be freedom and do not accept, as John Richardson does, that the war is already lost, there is too much to lose if we accept this as true.

Independent. Sometimes.

Greg  Clark writes: Re. “‘I hit back and told people to get fucked’: Mike Carlton explains why he quit” (yesterday). Fairfax: Independent. Sometimes. As one of the diminishing number of SMH readers who still purchases the paper on a daily basis, I am appalled at the way Fairfax has treated  Mike Carlton. What the Fairfax executives don’t understand is that many of us only continue to purchase to the paper to read the columns from the likes of Mike Carlton and Richard Ackland.

The key to attracting and retaining readers is surely having quality content and Mike Carlton was certainly providing that. And wasn’t it a couple of months ago that Mike Carlton was tweeting about not being paid on time for his columns?

The only two reasons I will continue to purchase the Herald is Kate McClymont & Ross Gittins — when they are gone so am I. Are you listening, Fairfax? Probably another reason to renew my Crikey subscription.

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Peter Fray
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