[-empyre-] Contesting the Netopticon

Simon Biggs simon at littlepig.org.uk
Mon Jan 10 10:08:48 EST 2011

January on empyre soft-skinned space

Contesting the Netopticon

Moderated by Simon Biggs (UK/Australia) with invited discussants Joseph
Delappe, Marc Garrett, Davin Heckman, Patrick Lichty, Heidi May, Christina
Spiesel and Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead.

Dear empyre subscribers,

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) described an apparatus he termed the Panopticon,
intended to condition the behaviour of subjects by disallowing them
knowledge of whether they were being observed or not, causing them to fear
they were. The space Bentham sought to control was the prison, seeking to
replace capital punishment with a penal system focused on rehabilitation.
Janet Semple's study (Semple) evidences Bentham's correspondence, suggesting
an intent to establish for-profit penal institutions based on his Panoptic

George Orwell, in his novel 1984 (1949), evoked a state of perpetual
government surveillance designed to crush deviation from mandated behaviour,
seeking to implant the self-governing mechanism within the psyche of the

Michel Foucault employed Bentham's conceptual framework as a motif for
social order in an interpretation that has become an intellectual
touchstone. In Foucault's vision, mapped out in his seminal 1975 text
"Discipline and Punish" (Foucault), the Panopticon extends far beyond the
prison and manifests as a pervasive property of social space and relations,
the dark matter of power relations.

The Panoptic structures innate in social space are often cited in relation
to the internet and its governance. The term "Netopticon" (Shoshan) suggests
a mesh-work structure of how a socially networked Panoptic apparatus can
operate. Malkit Shoshan describes how the social technologies that
characterise Web 2.0 facilitate the emergence of the internet as a Panoptic
space, where individuals are complicit in their own surveillance, echoing
Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood's analysis of the computer game as a platform
for the seduction of the individual into the military-entertainment complex
(Lenoir & Lowood).

The internet is pervasive in how people construct their social lives. If we
accept that "people" are emergent, through social activities that are a
process of becoming, issues around net neutrality, Web 2.0 and surveillance
have implications reaching into the psycho-social. Within a Foucauldian
appreciation of the social, where the Panopticon (nee: super-ego) is
manifest at the heart of our social relations, the Netopticon engages our
entwined individual and social ontologies. How will the codification of
individual and collective relations develop?

In the deluge of information released through Wikileaks, and the political
and legal fall-out from that, the metaphor of the Netopticon appears
especially pertinent. Wikileaks has sought to turn the gaze of the Panoptic
eye back upon itself, revealing those who would seek to remain invisible
behind a one way mirror. When the observer becomes visible the Panopticon
can no longer function. The Wikileaks affair foregrounds how Panoptic space
can be a contested space. As events unfold we witness the lengths that
governments will go to in order to protect their "cover". States, such as
the UK, Australia, Sweden, Zimbabwe and the USA, have sought to constrain or
"render" Julian Assange and compromise the Wikileaks operation.
Corporations, many with media interests, are visible conspirators. At the
same time there are those operating from the "other side", seeking to
preserve freedom of speech, an open internet and access to information.
Wikileaks has, by turning the Panoptic gaze back upon the observer, struck a
significant counter-attack in what might be considered an asymmetric

During the month of January we will discuss issues concerning the internet,
identity, surveillance and tactics of resistance. Our guests are:

Joseph Delappe (USA), an artist and Associate Professor at the University of
Nevada, Reno. His recent projects, often inflected with humour and political
import, have included re-enacting Ghandi's 240 mile Salt March in Second
Life and sponsoring the first Second Life avatar to run for the United
States Senate.

Marc Garrett (UK), an activist, artist and writer and co-director and
co-founder (with artist Ruth Catlow) of internet arts collectives and
communities furtherfield.org, netbehaviour.org and HTTP Gallery in London.
Through these platforms various contemporary media arts exhibitions and
projects are presented nationally and internationally. Marc also hosts a
weekly media arts radio programme on Resonance FM and last year co-edited
the publication "Artists Re: thinking games". He is currently undertaking a
PhD at Birkbeck University, London.

Davin Heckman (USA), the author of "A Small World: Smart Houses and the
Dream of the Perfect Day" (Duke UP, 2008). He is Supervising Editor of the
Electronic Literature Directory (directory.eliterature.org) and Associate
Professor of English at Siena Heights University, where he teaches courses
in writing, literature, and media studies.

Patrick Lichty (USA), a technologically-based conceptual artist, writer,
independent curator, animator for the activist group The Yes Men and
Executive Editor of Intelligent Agent Magazine. He began showing
technological media art in 1989 and deals with works and writing that
explore the social relations between us and media.  He is also an Assistant
Professor of Interactive Arts & Media at Columbia College, Chicago, and
resides in Baton Rouge.

Heidi May (Can), an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Vancouver
whose work examines how we understand and communicate experiences with/in
digital technology, particularly interpersonal aspects of these
relationships. She is currently undertaking a PhD in the Faculty of
Education at the University of British Columbia, addressing the topic of
networked art, art pedagogy and relational learning. Heidi also teaches at
Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Christina Spiesel (USA), a visual artist, co-author of "Law on Display, The
Digital Transformation of Legal Persuasion and Judgment". She is based at
Yale where she is a Senior Research Scholar in Law, a Fellow of the
Information Society Project and member of the Technology and Ethics Working
Group of the Institute for Social and Policy Studies. She teaches visual
persuasion elsewhere.

Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead (UK), artists who are fascinated with how
global communications networks continue to transform the way we perceive and
understand the world around us. They live and work in London and Kingussie,
in Scotland, make artworks for galleries, online and sometimes outdoors. Jon
lectures at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, while
Alison is lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths, University of London and
University of Westminster respectively.


Foucault. M, (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (English
translation), Penguin.

Lenoir. T & Lowood. H,

Semple. J, (1993). Bentham's prison, A study of the panopticon penitentiary,
Oxford: Clarendon Press

Shoshan. M, http://www.no-org.net/opticon/index.php?m=1

Simon Biggs
simon at littlepig.org.uk

s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

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