Sunday, August 26, 2012

Entry 2: Foucault and Facebook

I'm a Singularitarian. We're also called Transhumanists. It's the closest thing that I, the child of a disinterestedly-Jewish father and a very-lapsed-Catholic mother, have to a religion. The basic idea behind Transhumanism is that technology is symbiotic with humanity, and that if harassed responsibly it can serve as a means through which humanity can - to paraphrase Foucault's citation of Bentham - reform morals, preserve health, invigorate industry, and lighten the public burden (207). Essentially it's a Utopian ideal (often mocked as a "rapture of the nerds") and certainly it does open itself to some pretty fanciful ideas; however, where some Transhumanists like to focus on the possibilities of cybernetics, genetic engineering, robotics, and other not-so-science-fiction-anymore technologies, I prefer to think about the impact of communitcation technology, both in terms of how it has already shaped us, and how it will inevitably continue to do so.

Starting with Ohmann's ideas, I found a lot in this text that, in spite of its age, was incredibly insightful. Though some of his ideas were a bit outdated (I had a bit of a wry laugh when he wrote that computers would be "almost" as universal as televisions), a great deal of them were both eerily accurate and indicative of basic realities that many people take for granted. Take, for example, his reference on page 682 that "Adults ignorant of computers will soon be as restricted as those who today are unable to read." Though many people would chafe at this prediction, I believe that we're already seeing it come true. An ever-increasing amount of work is handled online, even in fields that are not typically associated with technology (publication, music, law, etc.), as is socialization. Many job and college applications require a working email address, and libraries and bookstores will soon be almost entirely digital. Small wonder that MIT Professor Tim Berners-Lee said that "Access to the Web is now a human right...the difference between somebody who is connected to the Web and is part of the information society, and someone who (is not) is growing bigger and bigger." (link: Of course this also implies that, in our current system, those with technological skill will gain greater privilege at the expense of those left behind.

Ohmann's reference to the rise of Monopoly Capitalism into a system that is "too complex for the supervision of a single attempted to coordinate every stage of making and selling, so as to eliminate uncertainty from the process" (678) echos Foucault's assertion in Panopticism that such systems will always work to "increase both the docility and utility of all elements of the system" (218). Monopoly Capitalism is shown as a coercive, obtuse system that monitors the populace without accountability. Ohmann, in casting technology as a neutral force, entreats us to "reconstitute literacy as a process of liberation" (688) in the hopes that technological literacy will serve rather to create equality than to "expand the minds and freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce" (683).

I agree that technology has the potential to either oppress or empower, and that it is our responsibility as teachers to help our students to understand the technology that is an inextricable part of their daily lives (losing internet access is almost like losing a limb to me); however, I don't know if it's possible to break free of Foucault's surveillance state. To be honest, I don't think that we need to. I can find little fault with Foucault's criticism of Bentham, but I wonder about the implication that such systems are inevitably built around a "constraining, subjecting, unbearable" (162) form of surveillance. While I can understand Foucault's objections to a police state (The Patriot Act is a good example of technology used as an "eye of power"), I believe that the internet has the potential to simulate an idealized version of a panoptic society, free from coercion or disenfranchisement.

One need only look at online communities like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others: These spaces serve as a microcosm where, in the absence of overt leadership (there's no King of the Internet, after all), members gather organically into self-moderating hierarchies. Each participant is visible, in the sense that she knows that her activities may be observed, but the specifics of this observation are largely unverifiable: she will rarely know exactly who is reading her contributions or when. In this way, a  member of these communities is made to self-regulate the content she brings to the community: there is no direct force exerted on her from on high, but the fear of social injury will (hopefully) lead to disciplined behavior. These communities also, over time, build meritocratic hierarchies. Where negative behavior is curtailed or rebuked with social stigma, positive behavior is incentivized through a system of up-votes. Content that is favorably regarded by the community is rewarded with permanent social capital that is always visible to any participant who cares to look (which reflects the radical transparency endorsed by Rousseau). A collection of up-votes is rewarded in different ways by different communities, but often translates to increased visibility, and thus a more prominent place in the hierarchy. Simply put: better contributions are seen by more people, encouraging others to improve their own contributions. Since one's contributions are the basis of evaluation, anybody can rise or fall in these constantly fluctuating social ranks.

These digital panoptics posses three key distinctions from those defined by Foucault. First is the absence of corporal disciplines which provide a "guarantee of the submission and forces of bodies" (222). Where Foucault's societies are coercive and omnipresent, digital communities are voluntary: an overzealous moderator or unfair hierarchy can simply be avoided or voted against. Second, Foucault describes systems where each participant "is the object of information, never a subject in communication" (200), but in a working online community everything hinges upon the individual members being a subject in communication. Whether by generating new content, or by determining another's place in the hierarchy through voting, the process is completely egalitarian, built with the principle of open communication at its core. Finally, the structure of power is less centralized in one location (as with the "eye" in the center), than it is distributed evenly among the "inmates". "Each comrade becomes an observer," in a sense.

This is, of course, an idealized view of these communities. We all have our own Facebook experiences that contradict my Utopian picture (embarrassing pictures, cumbersome arguments, annoying memes, timeline...) but I believe that these sites serve as a powerful model for a more transparent society and, more immediately, a means by which our students can engage with new information and social issues without outside constraint. Ohmann said that "Technique is less important than context and purpose in the teaching of literacy; and the effects of literacy cannot be isolated from the social relations and processes within which people become literate" (687). Given that so many people are becoming literate in an increasingly online space, I think that, rather than wonder if we should use X program or Y website in the class, we should focus on giving our students a level of awareness that will allow them to use the internet's transparency and accessibility to empower themselves and to hold one another to a higher social standard.


  1. Really enjoyed your post (sci fi plus good commentary = A+)

    I also found it to be a bit troubling when Foucault stated that systems of surveillance are "constraining, subjecting, unbearable" (162). I don't necessarily even disagree, but I do question why there is so much attention placed on it.

    I agree with your notion that there is a lot of good, not just bad, and I think we are discrediting the human race's ability to sort through the good and bad and make successful judgements in this overall pessimistic view of human nature.

    To me, Foucault's argument seems to be that if we abuse technology dangers can and will arise. But what truly important, life-altering, history changing invention could you not say this about?

    1. I guess Foucault's assumption of surveillance as inherently negative is natural considering the times. Back then the idea of "The Gaze" was sinister; the province of secret police and prison wardens. Could anybody have imagined a digital space where people watch one another for FUN? I agree with you that in the sense that the internet is like every other technology in the sense that it has potential for abuse or benefit, but I wonder if any other invention has the sheer sociological SCOPE of the web.

  2. I am intrigued by your explanation of hierarchy and status in "the internets," and your assertion (as I understood it), that in many ways, the more something is seen on the internet, the more value, capital, etc. it possesses. This explanation actually reduces my anxiety about Facebook, etc., and reminds me that we already tend to view viewers, readers, observers as proof that we are popular by internet standards.

    Youtube best illustrates this. On Youtube, the primary goal is that the video you post becomes viral and you become world-famous. This is a goal, because it has happened in a lot of instances. Still, it happens to so few in the human population that it people still see going viral as a goal that, if achieved, becomes the prize of the most popular. I also LOL'ed at the concept of "king of the internet" and instantly thought of the burger king crown :)

    1. Youtube is a particularly strange beast, too. The very concept of "going viral" is so new that I'm having a hard time getting my head around it. Over the years, I've seen an almost nonsensical range of viral videos; everything from TED talks to lolcats...does that mean that both are of equal value? Not to mention the fact that youtube offers monetary incentive to extremely popular content (if your channel becomes sponsored, you earn a cut of the ad revenue).

  3. I agree to a large degree with your discussion of the internet's "potential to simulate an idealized version of a panoptic society, free from coercion or disenfranchisement" and, indeed, I have experienced much of what you discuss in your examples of social media. Such online environments where members work harmoniously to keep the balance is an example of panoptic ideals at their best.

    I'm wondering, though, if there is anyway to really make this sort of communication work in a classroom. I find myself constantly working to create this sort of an environment (online) but I ultimately find myself intervening (for various seemingly important reasons like grades, maintaining civility, etc) - thus squelching the beneficial points of such an activity. I'm wondering if you've had any success as a teacher in cultivating these sort of mini-communities in your classes.

    1. Good question. It's one thing to talk about Facebook etc. as tools, but another thing to actually put these ideas into practice. To be honest, I'm not really sure that we CAN integrate social media into our lesson plans without imposing on the openness of its structures. The very act of relegating it to a space where grades and civility are enforced stifles an important element of open discourse. Plus, teachers are not accountable in the way that students are: the transparency is one-way.

      What if instead of taking a proactive approach to technology, we focused on being reactive? Give students the option to use technology on projects (and perhaps incentiveize it with extra credit, or something) and then step back. Then, at the end of a course, we ask students to reflect on how they used technology throughout the semester, whether officially (project work) or unofficially (complaining about an assignment on twitter, or asking a friend for help via email, or using to select an instructor in the first place). This could, hopefully, enable students to critically regard how technology empowers them without imposing the power dynamic of the classroom into a normally egalitarian space.

      Just a thought, anyway.

  4. Jeez, I love this class!! The discussions y'all are having via your blogs is just fantastic. Does this make me a techno utopian? Hmm. No, I think it just means y'all are good this thinking, reading, writing, and discussing business.

    That being said, great post and great discussion. I love seeing the connections people make between Foucault and teaching w/ technology. I don't feel there is a right way to connect them, I just love seeing the thinking that goes on when people give it a go. Well done.