ACM - Computers in Entertainment

The Panopticism of Cyberculture: Could privacy-invasive social media stifle innovation?

By Robert Niewiadomski, Dennis Anderson

Some of the grappling headlines in social media were not intended for public consumption. The thoughts expressed in them are often raw, politically incorrect, even subversive, and surely addressed to the inner social circle capable of understanding its context. Perhaps their authors held the naïve assumption that rules of social media would closely mimic the expectations of confidentiality in a tight face-to-face circle of friends. In such micro-communities it is perfectly acceptable to share half-formed viewpoints, experiment with ideas, and play with objectionable concepts; their intimacy provides a safe venue to enjoy our freedom of thought. But this is alien to social media. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the idea takes on a life on its own, cuts loose from its intended context, and the author might face very troublesome consequences.

Is the notion of privacy a thing of the past? When social media “steals” our privacy, should we just simply “get over it” as Scott McNealy baldly put it? [1] Or should we rather retain some form of it as actually beneficial to intellectual innovation and social progress?

“To be is to be perceived”–online, we should add. To be online is to be in public. The cyber “15 minutes of fame” has arrived, only if it is limited to “fifteen people” [2]. So many of us, willingly and unwillingly, share our deepest personal thoughts and information with corporations, governments, and other individuals. All of this sharing is double-edged: It “may help create communities, but it also destroys privacy” [3]. Whatever privacy we have left is often exploited without our knowledge or consent by rapidly developing invasive technologies, particularly, but not exclusively, social media. Credit card transactions, closed-circuit TV in public places, biometrics, emerging facial recognition, mobile phone and vehicle tracking, satellite and drone monitoring, workplace surveillance, cookies, hardware-based identifiers, location-based technologies, and social media are just some out of the myriad of examples [4]. Surely, you are asked to agree to privacy statements as you sign up for a social media account. Practically speaking, however, these provisions are not there to protect you, but rather to secure the provider’s legal rights.  As a result: “The cumulative and reinforcing effect of these technologies may make modern life completely visible and permeable to observers; there could be nowhere to hide” [1].

Concerns over privacy had seriously begun to occupy the minds of thinkers, lawmakers, and the general public as soon as technology began to instantaneously disseminate personal information. With the onset of the digital revolution, these concerns compelled some to proclaim essentially the “death of privacy” and led to various efforts to defend and protect it as a fundamental right. We often take it for granted, but the right to privacy was a monumental achievement with profound consequences both to our individual autonomy and to civilization. Now, it is experiencing degeneration.

Privacy is a fairly modern construct that emerged along with notions of individuality, personal liberty, and independence [5]. When public discourse entered the stage of history, one had to create an autonomous inner space to ideate private thoughts and opinions that could, subsequently, lead to publically arguing, questioning, debating, and advocating for change. Thus, privacy was necessary to enjoy freedom of thought. In Medieval Europe the notion of privacy became a peculiar paradox. Theologians conceived a notion of individual conscience—an autonomous faculty to discern between right and wrong. Yet, the Church developed an elaborate spiritual apparatus to shape, control, and punish “the private” through confession, internalized guilt, taxonomy of sins, and a vision of constant, and direct, divine surveillance. During the Reformation, with the great aid of the printing press, subversive literature inspired the germination of ideas that questioned the very foundations of feudal order and authority. This ultimately brought about the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

But what role does privacy play in our society today? A vital one. Privacy matters to our personal circles, including families and friends—“there has to be a zone where you can be fully known” [6]. There has to be a private space where you can share your doubts about the celestial order or secrets about the authorities, or expose your weaknesses or disabilities with the expectation that you will be safe from ridicule or persecution. Moreover, privacy matters for our communities of individuals with common affiliations because “there has to be a space where can develop bonds of trust, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties” [6].

Most importantly, as David Brooks rightfully articulates, privacy is critical in the “development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see” or approve of . In this internal zone “half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment” and condemnation. In this inner space we can be free to develop ideas, often subversive or even dangerous, and convictions away from the pressure to conform. It is a spot where “you are only yourself and can define yourself” [6]. In its very essence, this private, internal zone made us who we are; it shaped our humanity and allowed intellectual growth and creativity to flourish. It fostered experimentation with ideas without social judgment and ostracism. This notion of privacy is deeply related to intimacy and freedom of thought [7–10].

Currently, social media and web search engines—including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, and YouTube—invade our privacy in subtle yet aggressive ways. Browsing logs, search queries, or contents of Facebook profiles can be automatically processed to infer information about an individual even if they are not directly stated: their race, sexual orientation, political and religious views, substance use history, health, personality traits, and even intelligence [11]. Social media companies treat our privacy as a valuable asset that can be monetized and also used in other ways difficult even to imagine today. One thing, however, becomes very clear, collecting personal information is a means of acquiring power and wealth.

Undoubtedly, it is important to explore how social media is transforming our social model, influencing our economy, reshaping our institutions, and changing our social behaviors. A great deal of inquiry pertaining to that has been done already. However, we still have much to learn about how “social media impacts on our sense of personal identity” [12]. What happens to our minds when there is a possibility, whether actualized or not, of omnipresent surveillance? Some insight comes from the model of an ideal prison, the “Panopticon,” devised in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham. According to his design, the structure comprises of a ring of cells surrounding a central guard tower. The inmates in these cells are perpetually exposed to the gaze of the guards in the tower. However, they cannot see the inside of the tower. Consequently, the prisoners are never certain whether or not they are being watched. The control and power was exerted merely by means of the prisoners’ internalized possibility of  “being watched.”  They were effectively their own guards.

Bentham’s Panopticon—which has been incorporated in the architecture of prisons, schools, hospitals, urban spaces, and, curiously enough, even in contemporary workplaces—captured the imagination of Michel Foucault, who coined the concept of panopticism in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Even though Foucault never witnessed the advent of the Internet, his philosophical lens can help us shed a light on how social media affects us on a psychological level. As Batko points out, from the Foucaultian perspective:

“man is held captive by the control machine equipped with an apparatus for observation, recording and training. … There is a growing tendency to monitor all employee activity…by means of oppressive calculating equipment, which records every computer click, every second of a telephone conversation, and the exact time spent away from one’s desk. Some companies take the control issue further still, introducing elements which can only be described as a prelude to total control: for instance, the Swedish firm Epicenter makes its employees wear microchip implants equipped with a radio locator, which —according to the company’s rhetoric–are to better safeguard their privacy” [13].

Knowing you might be constantly monitored affects far more that just behavior. Some individuals will quickly subject themselves to self-censoring. Such a system fosters conformity rather that creative thinking and intellectual risk taking, both so vital for an emerging economy based on innovation.

By making our actions and shares visible to a crowd, social media exposes us to a kind of virtual Panopticon. Self-surveillance and, consequently, the oppression it brings about are direct results of these cyber tools. “There are no guards and no prisoners in Facebook’s virtual Panopticon. We are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another as we share content” [12].  There are numerous instances when people are ridiculed or stalked or threatened for something they thought they were sharing with their closest circle of friends. However, they missed that there is no such things as boundaries in social media. Once something gets out, it becomes available for virtually the entire cyber community.

Why then is this panoptical, self-disciplining mindset that strips us from our personal privacy so dangerous for innovation? The answer lies in realizing that this way of thinking discourage free discourse in small groups, where novel ideas are formed and entertained by divergent-thinking individuals without the fear of being labeled, ridicules, or ostracized. This stage of ideation is an important part of the process of scientific innovation as well as social and political change. Ideas, formed and discussed in private, need time to germinate and mature before they can be responsibly brought into the public to be evaluated, scrutinized, and, ultimately, accepted or rejected. The instantaneous sharing of one’s private thoughts, often half-formed, through social media does not allow for that necessary time. It often leads to the stifling of private, small-group discourse between scientists, intellectuals, social-change advocates, or journalists. The ubiquity of social media makes it simply too risky to engage in such deliberations. Academic inquires become crippled, political discussions futile, and public opinion–superficial. Certain topics and areas of inquiry become taboo or are too dangerous to engage in. They cannot be explored not only in small professional groups, although even privately this is difficult due to the internalized self-censoring mechanism. The noble ideals of freedom of thought and, its public counterpart, the freedom of speech, become empty slogans in an environment where individuals are attacked by cyber communities  and banished from the cyber-agora simply for private explorations of certain topics online or for sharing their half-formed, perhaps inconvenient, reflections with a small circle of individuals. Somehow, somewhere things cross into “the public” and someone’s reputation or employment might be in jeopardy. The panoptic nature of cyberculture possesses the lethal potential to inhibit stages of innovation that thrive in private spaces, and, consequently, greatly suffocate progress. In pursuit of pure politically correctness, with the help of social media, we find ourselves already inside of a virtual Panopticon. 



[1] Froomkin, A. Michael. "The Death of Privacy?" Stanford Law Review 52 (2000): 1461-1543. Web. 3 July 2015.

[2] Weinberger, David. "Famous to Fifteen People." Web log post. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 July 2015. <>.

[3] Claypoole, Theodore F. "Privacy and Social Media." Business Law Today (2014): n. pag. American Bar Assotiation. Web. 3 July 2015. <>.

[4] Alterman, Anton. "``A Piece of Yourself'': Ethical Issues in Biometric Identification." Ethics and Information Technology 5.3 (2003): 139-50. Web.

[5] Scott, Gini Graham. The Death of Privacy: The Battle for Personal Privacy in the Courts, the Media, and Society. Bronx, NY: Ishi, 2011. Print.

[6] Brooks, David. "The Lost Language of Privacy." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 3 July 2015. <>. 

[7] Fried, Charles. An Anatomy of Values; Problems of Personal and Social Choice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970. Print.

[8] Gerety, Tom. “Redefining Privacy”, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 12 (1977): 233-96

[9] Gerstein, Robert S. "Intimacy and Privacy." Ethics 89.1 (1978): 76. Web.

[10] Cohen, Jean Louise. Regulating Intimacy a New Legal Paradigm. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002. Print.

[11] Kosinski, Michal; Stillwell, D.; Graepel, T. (2013). "Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (15): 5802–5805.

[12] Rayner, Tim. "Foucault and Social Media: Life in a Virtual Panopticon." Philosophy for Change. N.p., 21 June 2012. Web. 03 July 2015. <>.

[13]  Batko, Roman. Panopticon - Cybercontrol in Liquid Modernity: What Does Control Really Mean in Contemporary Management? Vienna: International Society for Information Studies, 3 Mar. 2015. PDF.






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