Living in the Panopticon

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jean dewitt
university of houston-downtown

We are the watched, those under surveillance in the panopticon. Public sphere and private venues. E-education is but another context for surveillance.


One means of power, the invasion of privacy, is to coerce the observed by denying them the right to see their observers. Twentieth-century philosopher Michel Foucault describes this discipline as panopticism,


Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance …We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism (Foucault 217).

Freely roaming in cyberspace and virtual reality gives the individual a sense of command over time and information, but as people work, learn and play in cyberspace, they are subjected to more control and supervision than in other modes of communication. Jennifer S. Granick, in the July 1998 issue of Wired, states that new technology makes surveillance quite easy, as there are few protections for the consumer. She points to the study by the American Management Association in 1997 that found “two-thirds of major US companies electronically monitor their workers” (86). Stephen Doheny-Farina describes one such device in his book The Wired Neighborhood (1996). This technology called “ubiquitous computing” includes the ability to track an employee’s location at all times.

When we climb into shared folders, download assignments, and surf the Web, data are gathered directly and indirectly about us. From what feels like privacy, we participate in on-line chat rooms, leave a message on a bulletin board, shop online, and register with a commercial site. With more classes and degrees offered online, education is becoming consumer oriented. Knowledge is now considered a content commodity. Students have a sense of being in control with access to information anytime and anyplace. Ironically, in cyberspace we are more visible and open to surveillance. Whether students are forming virtual teams, collecting information on the Web, or participating in distance education, they are under observation, as are we all. The exercise of power in cyberspace may lack documentation; nevertheless, it pervades this virtual community without walls.

There is a sense of privacy, autonomy, or control over one's learning as hypertext removes the restrictions inherent in linear text. Certainly pulling information from the Web or an intranet and pushing e-mail from a remote source, at any hour, in the privacy of one's own home gives the user a sense of control and psychological distance. However, as Bentham prescribed, the tower is in the center, be it the Web or the professor opening shared files or a student tracking system. The cells, "small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible" (Foucault 200) are the computer terminals, the defining physical space. Those in the tower can use the latest Web-based classroom management tools to track every connection, edit a file/folder, download transcripts of chat rooms and bulletin boards, or simply observe without being seen. Computerized forms, identified by one software management company as the Student Record Summary Sheet, track the time the student has spent online, noting log on and log off. This process recalls the characteristics Foucault attributes to the panopticon: enable the observer to calculate the time taken to perform a task, to note laziness, to evaluate the aptitude of the observed, to judge performance, to assess success and to classify the observed.

Acknowledging and understanding this panoptic schema may enhance procedures for team building in this new environment. Those confident in their dual roles as observers and observed become independent learners. The ability to be self-directed frees them from power struggles that beset most collaboration. Self-confidence allows them to appreciate cultural differences, individual reflection, and group reinforcement.


Exploring privacy statutes as well as privacy common law provides a context for ensuring students recognize the extent to which they are under observation in an online course. Initially, the focus is on disclosure issues. For instance, a syllabus should highlight the ramifications of tracking procedures provided by course management software such as WebCT or Blackboard. Contractual agreements offer another strategy for verifying the students’ acceptance of the surveillance inherent in a web-based course. Finally, a review of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act identifies restrictions within the corporate environment, raising the possibility of applications to academia. Dispelling the illusion of privacy maintains the integrity of the course and enhances the learning experience.

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