Michel Foucault, Privacy, and Doubts about Web 2.0

I think we need to be skeptical about the things which sweep us off of our feet. When you say to yourself, “Oh my god, this is the best thing i’ve ever done/seen/had/etc.,” it’s time to step back and ask some questions. Well, I’ve been doing that a lot lately as I think about the social web and privacy.

When people raise concerns about Gen Y’s seeming lack of concern about protecting their privacy, I sometimes counter by asking why every other generation is so obsessed with secrecy and self-imposed isolation. And I do believe that’s an important question to ask. But lately, Michel Foucault has been on my mind when I think about how willing many young (and some old) people are to expose every detail, every thought, every action, every moment, to public view on YouTube, blogs, Facebook, and so on. Foucault said that power exerts itself by fixing its subject in its gaze, by keeping him/her/them/it under constant surveillance. So we put ourselves “out there” for all to see. And we celebrate that freedom. And we, the techies, encourage our colleagues and students to follow suit. But whose purposes are we serving?

When I was growing up in the Eighties, 1984 loomed large. Was Orwell right? Were we heading towards a police state? It was a scary vision: cameras watching our every move, secret police monitoring our relationships and private acts, “Big Brother” constantly peering over our shoulder. Certainly there are people thinking about these same issues in light of the Patriot Act and revelations about domestic spying and monitoring of phone calls by US citizens. But in my more cynical moments, I’m beginning to think that it’s less about the all-seeing eye prying into our world and more about being tricked into opening the kimono. With web 2.0, have we internalized the gaze of authority? Have we convinced ourselves, in Huxley’s words, that “everyone belongs to everyone else?” Why does the government (or whoever) need to spy on us when we’ve become so excited about putting it all out there on our own?

It’s a weird philosophical question but one that might be worth asking the next time you hit that “Upload” button on YouTube. Have we become the unwitting accessories to our own oppression?

Photo by andy emcee posted on flickr.com

4 thoughts on “Michel Foucault, Privacy, and Doubts about Web 2.0

  1. This is a very thought provoking post that will be featured on my blog tomorrow. (Thank you for leaving your link btw.) I’m very impressed with not only the graphic appeal of your blog but how well you express your inner ponderings on this subject.

    I think that many students and teachers do not consider what they put out there for everyone to see. Nor do they realize the illusion of privacy on the Internet. I never use my children’s nor my husband’s names for this very reason… I want to protect them.

    Being on the internet is a decision that each person must make for themselves. Sadly, some make the decision and their “friends” compromise their security and privacy with comments left for them. It is so important that we discuss this subject at a very young age… we’ve discussed it with students as young as fourth graders as part of the Digiteen Project and I still feel we are falling short at our school.

    Excellent blog! I’ll be back!

  2. Pingback: Hey…You…Guuuuys (and Gals)!!! Part 2 « EdTech4Newbies

  3. In my understanding of Foucault, the status quo is maintained not by one sinister authoritarian, but by the surveillance of everyone by everyone else.

    I will agree that with many social networking sites, younger people put up much of their information without giving much thought to who is observing that information.

    However, I don’t think that this is significantly different from the power dynamics Foucault formulated in an off-line world. Everyone is an agent of power and everyone watches everyone else to make sure they conform to accepted societal standards. If these standards are breached then a complex army of professionals descends on the uncompliant individual.

    This type of observation was in place before I was born. The social networking websites are mere extensions of the public sphere. When you go out to a coffee shop you are divulging a similar amount of personal information to anyone who cares to look. (and yes some dastardly fellow could steal your wallet or the CIA could listen in to your conversation.) As far as the power structure is concerned the same dynamics are in place. Your discussions and behaviors are monitored in the coffee shop just as they are online.

    Now, I’m not naive enough to suggest that the internet hasn’t changed some of the internal workings of the system. By going out into a SOCIAL networking site, you are going out into public where you will be seen and you know that.

    One reason why we get so much personal information online is because because parents are so protective of allowing their children into actual public space. Kids don’t run off into the public on their own and their interactions outside of the home are closely monitored. (obviously not true for all kids) So of course they are going to be more inclined to divulge more information in the spaces available to them online – because there aren’t so many places off-line for them to socialize freely.

    “Younger people” have been fed terror about anything outside their front door their whole lives – fleeing into suburbs always being driven to specific play-dates, so of course their less likely to listen to the horrors of what is outside on the internet.

    You are correct in saying that by divulging your personal information on social networking sites, you are submitting yourself to the surveillance of the masses and the relentless bulldozer of acceptable behavior. You also, by reading other people’s information judge them. It is a whole big web (or matrix) of power and while the internet may be adjusting this web a little bit – well of course there adjustments, it would not be a very robust or imposing system of power if it lacked the ability to adapt to decades of changes in the way people act in their daily lives.

    (sorry if this was over-long – I suppose it was procrastination for other writing I need to do)

  4. Vicki- Thanks for your kind words and for bringing many new readers to my blog. I’m a big fan and appreciate your taking the time to introduce some new voices into the conversation.

    Nicholas – Wow, thanks for enlarging – and correcting – my understanding of Foucault’s thinking as it applies to web 2.0. I haven’t read him in a very long time, probably since I received my MA in English back in the mid-Nineties. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about the whole idea of gaining power over someone by fixing him/her in your gaze and our newfound willingness, our excitement, at subjecting ourself to that gaze. Maybe what is so scary about this new manifestation of the dynamic is its permanence – we put it out there knowing that it’s out there forever now – and its precision: the surveillance is no longer a blurry image on a video camera but our very thoughts, feelings, conversations, and personal information writ large for all the world to see.

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