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