Panopticon.com: Online Surveillance and the Commodification of Privacy

Article excerpt

"DART offers an unlimited array of targeting criteria to ensure you get the right message to the right person at the right time."--DoubleClick Web site, 2001 (1)

In 1791, Jeremy Bentham introduced a new and technologically advanced prison design christened the "Panopticon." Reflecting the values of the European Enlightenment, Bentham's prison schema would benefit society by providing an effective and efficient means of controlling and rehabilitating criminals. In 2002, Internet ad servers, like Bluestreak and DoubleClick, offer marketing firms the ability to "personalize" online marketing through the targeted placement of advertisements. These third-party ad servers are able to target the "right people" with the "right messages" by compiling personal information into economic profiles of millions of individuals using the World Wide Web, facilitating marketers in their systematic efforts to identify, categorize, and assess potential consumers.

These two seemingly distinct historical phenomena are predicated on a single technique: surveillance. The Panopticon and Internet ad servers each employ technologies of information gathering and aggregation in a methodic effort to appraise individuals and populations for various purposes of control. In regard to Bentham's Panopticon, the objective is to assess an individual's likelihood for undesirable behavior, and to monitor, categorize, and rank so as to curb such behavior. In a broader perspective, the Panopticon was seen as a way of organizing social institutions to ensure a more orderly society by producing disciplined and "rational" (read predictable) citizens. With Internet ad servers, the goal is to provide marketers with the personal information necessary to determine if an individual constitutes an economically viable consumer. The enhanced consumer profiling offered by these third-party ad servers increases the effectiveness and efficiency of advertisers' efforts, reducing the uncertainty faced by producers introducing their goods and services into the marketplace.

As the Panopticon and Internet ad servers demonstrate, surveillance as a technique and technology of control is a central dimension of the capitalist state, particularly under the social formation identified as "late capitalism" or "information capitalism" (Kling & Allen, 1996). Indeed, few institutions are better exemplars of surveillance than the capitalistic workplace, where Frederick Winslow Taylor's introduction of "scientific management" into the factory is in many respects comparable to Bentham's introduction of the panoptic model into penology. Not only has capitalism utilized new information technologies to expand surveillance in the workplace (e.g., monitoring of e-mails and phone calls, genetic screening, and closed-circuit video cameras), but increasingly the same technologies are also used to watch, record, and assess routine activities in the marketplace. As Lyons (2001) notes, "While companies continue to use surveillance technologies as tools to manage workers in the workplace, the last decades of the twentieth century also saw a massive expansion of efforts to use surveillance technologies to manage consumers" (p. 64).

The roles of surveillance in both the workplace and marketplace are essentially parallel--the reduction of uncertainty (i.e., risk management). Under contemporary capitalism, surveillance is a key mechanism of social control, ensuring the "rationality," and therefore predictability, of consumers in the marketplace. The capitalist state depends on the gathering and processing of information to ensure both the greatest possible extraction of surplus value from production and consumption (in essence, efficiency), and the social and political stability necessary to expand its enterprise. This underlies Robins and Webster's (1999) contention that the history of capitalist industry "has been a matter of the deepening and extension of information gathering and surveillance to the combined end of planning and controlling the production process, and it is into this context that the new information and communication technologies are now inserting themselves" (p. …