Joel Bakan: The Panopticon

Power of the new media.

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

The Panopticon (which means all-seeing) is a model prison devised by British philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.

Its structure, a radical configuration with observation posts in the center and inmates' cells and common areas around the periphery, was designed to ensure guards could always see inmates but never be seen by them. As a result, inmates had to presume guards might be watching them at any given moment, which meant, according to Bentham, that they would have to behave as if they were being watched all the time. In this way, the Panopticon, by its very structure, created the effect of total surveillance, while allowing for actual surveillance to be intermittent and even absent.

The Panopticon was never built, but Bentham's idea was revived by French philosopher Michel Foucault two centuries later to illustrate what he called the "perfection of power." Power was perfected within the Panopticon, Foucault argued, because it did not have to be exercised by guards and prison authorities. Inmates "themselves [became] the bearers of power" within a structure that had the effect of "creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it."

The Panopticon is helpful for understanding the new power and possibilities of social media for kid marketers. On social media, "people influence people," according to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. "It's no longer just about messages … broadcasted out by companies, but increasingly about information … shared between friends." Social network friends market to each other, in other words, as "viral" tactics (also known as "word-of-mouth" and "buzz" tactics) seamlessly weave brands and commercial messages into communications among them. Users become "fans" and "friends" of brands, and get their friends to do the same; they share across their networks branded contests, quizzes, games, applications, and "widgets" – mini-applications whose viral power makes them, according to one industry insider, possibly the highest expression so far of online marketing in the post-advertising age. They create branded videos, songs, stories, poems, and photographs at company websites and virally distribute them to friends. And these are just a few examples from a huge and growing array of viral strategies.

Marketing as marketing disappears within the viral networks of social media platforms. Boundaries are broken down between marketers and kids (as kids market to each other); between content and advertising (as advertising now infuses, rather than interrupts, content); and between kids' lives and entertainment (as their lives now become the content of that entertainment). It is truly the "perfection of [marketers'] power." Kids, like the prisoners in the Panopticon, now bear the power marketing holds over them, and the marketers, like the Panopticon's guards, drop from view, their power now automatic and self-executing, all the greater for its invisibility.

Joel Bakan is a lawyer and professor of law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His first book, The Corporation, is a celebrated international bestseller and was made into a feature documentary film in 2003.