The panopticon is just a prison, guys: On a new approach to understanding new media

On: September 30, 2010
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About Lennard Torbijn


Numerous academic books and articles that have claimed to address the workings of new media tend to merely present an online phenomenon’s lineage or draw an analogy between older (media) theory and newer media (theory). Let us, for instance, consider the central role Foucault’s analysis of power relations and the panopticon has played and still plays in new media’s surveillance and control theory.

We’re talking 1785 here, when way back in the days one man designed a particular kind of prison. A few centuries later, Foucault shows up and attributes several implicit characteristics to that prison that deal with surveillance and control. Within decades, his ideas are picked up by other theorists who endlessly exploit Foucault’s notion of control and the panopticon to point to new media processes.

Can anybody explain what happened there? What can a prison, an actual physical structure, possibly have to do with the digital and social new media?

Where and when did it become a regular practice to basically pick an idea from the past, compare it to new media, and then conclude whether new media are or aren’t conforming to ideas or notions that remotely have to do with one another? And, more importantly, how is this understanding new media?

This is not to say that this approach to new media cannot result in a comprehensive book or article, and of course the above is intentionally written somewhat polemically. This is done to stress there seems to be something missing that actually can aptly describe new media and value it for its own characteristics, rather than sticking to comparisons with phenomena that already existed.

To understand and construe new media in their contemporary fashion, it is necessary to not only test new media practices on the relations they bear to the past (comparing the panopticon with the use of RFID tags), but on the relations they bear to the present (or even the promises of the future) also. How do, for instance, Wikipedia‘s workings relate to the present-day notions of how new media are supposed to work? I propose here that we move from explaining new media in the almost obsolete terms of old towards addressing characteristics that are key to new media, that are native to the Internet. We must try to find particular workings that are radically different from the past, rather than placing new media in line with the past.

To give this expidition into the hazardous and unknown territory of new media theory more body, Wikipedia will serve the purpose to shed some light on how this proposition works in practice.

Like new media surveillance theory, Wikipedia research has tended to result in simply comparing, for instance, older hypertext theory (e.g.. George Landow, Ted Nelson) with Wikipedia, without addressing specific Wikipedia characteristics that are central to Wikipedia’s being amongst the other Web 2.0 enterprises. Since we are at the start of Wikipedia studies, as one might describe it, I propose asking different questions on Web 2.0 enterprises and in this case Wikipedia. How does Wikipedia work? And more importantly, how is Wikipedia to be placed within the Web 2.0 environment? How does Wikipedia fit within the current, dominant understandings of how new media work in general? Does Wikipedia share characteristics with Facebook for instance?

Wikipedia is arguably one of the prime examples of Web 2.0’s possibilities. Admittedly, a comparison with hypertext theory for instance provides us with a good insight into how Wikipedia technically works. But I plea for a good understanding of the nature of Web 2.0 and how that is reflected on Wikipedia. For instance, Facebook is heralded as one of the better examples of social networking. So, there are characteristics to social networking. Aren’t these in general also applicable to Wikipedia? Having accounts, conversations, sharing information, non profit for a user, the signing up is free. Also, an attribute of the Internet is that it seems to be free and egalitarian. Is this so on Wikipedia?

Nicholas Carr, for instance, nuances the ideas of a cathedral and a bazaar (a nod to Eric S. Raymond’s classic text). He argues that there seems to be no strict distinction between bottom-up and top-down development. The Wikipedia is praised for being designed and contributed to in a bottom-up way. However, bots are employed to keep Wikipedia clean and uniform. What does this say about the common notion of Wikipedia being free and user-led? There are still administrators, there are still hierarchies. In his book Wikipedia: A new community of practice? (p. 178), Dan O’Sullivan points to how not-having a username on Wikipedia ironically makes you less anonymous. This is an Internet characteristic, that is native to the web. So that has to be researched on its own merits.

See how Nicholar Carr and Dan O’Sullivan critique Wikipedia on being not in line with the greater ideas of the free and unboundedness? Or, rather, how new media theory does not aptly describe Wikipedia’s workings. This is a different approach to understanding new media than introducing an old notion by magic and then comparing it the practices of today.

Let’s say Wikipedia lies not in the tradition of encyclopediae. Let’s say, Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is the first Wikipedia.I propose we place Wikipedia, or any other Web 2.0 application that has to be researched for that matter, within the Web 2.0 landscape itself and thereby judge its characteristics on the properties they share with other Web 2.0 applications. We have to keep contesting concensus. Comparing eighty year old concepts with today’s practices can hardly be called new media theory.

Axel Bruns, for one, has recognized the problem of the terminology of old to describe new developments happening now online. Although he does not state in any polemic way that older new media theory has to be disregarded, he does argue that the terms we use to describe online production are not capable of present a full understanding of new media’s workings. He introduces the produser, a contraction of producer and user, to describe how we as a user produce while working on whatever contribution we make the Internet. What Bruns basically does, is stating what I state here in this article: namely that new media are not te be understood in terms of older notions, but must be researched with the toolkit of today.

I am well aware that this proposition might be somewhat offensive with regard to new media theory of the past, also this proposition carries a lot of implications with it. But here and now is not the place to extensively research a case on the basis of my proposed methodology. It is hardly a methodology. These are thoughts, that should be picked up by others.

Give it some thought. 

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and beyond. From production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang, 2008

O’Sullivan, Dan. Wikipedia. A new community of practice? Farnham: Ashgate, 2009

Carr, Nicholas G. The ignorance of crowds. Strategy+business (2007) no. 47. <>

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