Courses in the DCIM minor have changed my perspective on the overall effect of technology on society a great deal. The danger of “big data” and basic concepts presented by Andrejevic and Castranova are not entirely new. However, before these courses, their danger seemed to be at most a subtle hum in the background – which should certainly inspire some extra critical thinking about the choices we make in a mass-media world, but in the end, are not significantly dangerous. Now, with a better grasp on the implications of these power imbalances – and specifically, how carefully mass media tailors their marketing to foster a sense of interactivity and democracy – I am slightly more afraid.
This week’s readings reminded me of a guest lecture from an earlier semester about the idea of a digital panopticon. Pictured to the left, the panopticon is essentially a prison design by social theorist Jeremy Bentham from the 1700s. The appeal of the design is in how all prisoner cells are visible from a central guard tower. This means that the prisoners can see very little, and the guards can theoretically watch all of the prisoners, all the time.
To connect this prison design to our readings about virtual worlds’ frightening new implications, replace some variables in the design. The institution is not a prison, but the internet; the center tower does not hold guards, but instead represents Google; and we, the users, are prisoners. This image is a frighteningly accurate depiction of virtual worlds’ “ramifications and consequences”. Users, as Andrejevic noted, “have less knowledge about and control over how [information about them] is being used” than ever before – they are prisoners, unable to see many other prisoners, much less the guards who monitor them perpetually. Meanwhile in our example, Google is in a uniquely perfect position to collect endless amounts of data from those who surround them, unable to hide a thing – “producers have more information than ever before”. Analyzing the internet through the model of a prison is decidedly dystopian – but if deception by producers continues to develop at its recent speed, the dystopia may be very real.