It’s Really A Panopticon World

Last week I called my brother, an electrical engineer who was reading Foucault at the time. This didn’t strike me as odd because if you knew my brother, you’d realise this is normal behaviour.  He is well-versed in philosophy, political science and bartitsu (you’ll have to look this one up to believe it).

Yeah, my brother is a bit of legend.

But he’s my ‘go to’ person when I have a problem because he’ll give me sage words of advice that probably don’t make much sense for me at the time, but pack a whole lot of punch 24 hours afterwards when his words and meaning fall into place to reveal the truth and which keep me thinking for days on end.

What a handy skill to have.  Why didn’t I score that in the genetic lottery of life?

I talked to him about a recent situation where I was asked to delete a blog post that was about one of the worst training experiences I have had in a long time.  When I was asked to do this, admittedly it annoyed me because I had written my experiences with no embellishments and even wrote how I would have redesigned the course.  However that feeling soon gave over to more thinking and reflection about my actions and of others in the situation.

I thought about our open world and how dangerous it could be for some.  Especially when you’re exposing others bad behaviours, actions and intentions. I thought about how this may modify peoples behaviour because they know they’re being watched.

My brother described it as a ‘panopticon’.

I had never heard of a panopticon but put two and two together (being Greek has its advantages – ‘pan’ = all and ‘opticon’ = watch, see, observe, of the eye) and understood that they were “all seeing”.  It also had an ominous feeling about it if a philosopher refers to it, so I assumed that control, observation and behaviour had something to do with it too.

Wikipedia describes the the Panopticon as “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 them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.”

In the last week, I also had three different conversations with colleagues who said that I inspired them to create and write their own blogs on learning and training.  All three had called me to discuss how excited they were with their new blogs and enjoying writing in them as a way to express, reflect and record their work.  The tone then became serious when all of them shared a concern around writing something that could be misconstrued by their organisation or fellow colleagues:

  • “I really want to write about XYZ. But do you think I’d be allowed?”
  • “What if someone at our work reads it and takes offence?”
  • “Do you think I should have another identity online?”

I understand where they are coming from.  Every time I write in my blog I have heart palpitations.  I type the words, structure the sentences, I read them, re-type, change strong words to watered down words, continually assess each sentence for its meaning and hope for the best that it conveys the message.

My fall back every time is to refer to our social media policy which is: Be Responsible, Be Transparent and Be Respectful – so at least we have these guidelines and it’s what I gauge every blog post against.

This then got me thinking about how our words and visuals online modify, change or amplify different behaviours of people around you?  In a world where everyone can comment, tweet, post, record – do these actions create changes in behaviour in society?

Will society become more civil and respectful with each other knowing that they are being watched? Or will it go the other way where bad behaviour is deliberately used as a means to communicate a message?

There have been many examples in the media recently that show both sides of humanity: the good and the deplorable.

This then got me thinking of Google Glasses and how these will impact society.  Despite the initial excitement of a new gadget in the marketplace, I’m now thinking that it’s going to open up a whole new world – and it could get ugly.  I had images of myself deliberately trying to steer away from people I see wearing them.  If I get annoyed at people who use their smart phones at the dinner table, my annoyance is going to reach a whole new level with them wearing Google Glass.

“Oh, are we ready to order everyone?”

“I think I’m going to have the Rawson’s Retreat Merlot. Hang on, give me a tic.  Google Glass, search Rawson’s Retreat”

“Good idea, Google Glass, search Pillar Box Reserve Shiraz”

“Oh look, the Vue Monde sells the merlot at $15.50 a bottle.”

“Google Glass, review Pillar Box Reserve Shiraz”

“Google Glass, take a picture”

“What are you taking a picture of?”

“Your eyes go wonky when you tell your glasses to look something up.”

“How so? Just email it to me, let me see.”

“Google Glass, email photo.”

“Ha, ha – yeah look at them. Guess I’ve got “Googly Eyes!” (raucous laughter, unamused waitress)

And so it goes on.  Future dinner dates with friends is going to be painful.

But then, there is justice in life.  Their Google Glass could turn out like this…

Now imagine I was wearing these Google Glasses to that worst training experience and took video footage of the experience – no need for Level 1 Evaluations or ‘smile sheets’ when you can show proof of your experience directly!

(It would add a whole new different meaning to evaluations of conferences with inadequate catering options for the amount of delegates attending as there’d be photos of empty plates, tweets, blog posts, and video rants on You Tube for the organisers to see the chaos they created.  Dissatisfaction from all angles, all out in the open…big data at its best).

Similarly, if the facilitator or a speaker at a conference saw a group of people wearing Google Glasses, would that modify their behaviour in any way knowing that they are being watched and assessed by the whole wide world?

Hopefully it can’t be all bad. I’d hope that we can use these glasses for good like Andrew Vanden Heuvel did who brought his tour of CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva back to his classroom.

So I guess we wait and see how it all pans out but I can’t help but feel that we’re on the cusp of something that we still don’t understand where exposure is modifying our behaviours and changing societal norms.

I’ll leave you with one more video because at least, for the time being, one behaviour – stupidity – will be evident and magnified.

About Helen Blunden

My unique super power is that I see learning experiences in everything I do. #alwayslearning
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