Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Panoptic Thoughts

I am constantly surprised by the Internet and the numerous opportunities it provides some of us.

Several weeks ago I was participating in a discussion about "Benchmarking" in one of the University blogs. Someone mentioned the panopticon leading us to consider how awareness of one's audience might influence what is written in a public blog. This led me to think of the panopticon in relation to my own work.

Writing in the 19th Century Jeremy Bentham designed a radical new form of prison the panopticon. Circular in form, the prison comprised of cells arranged around a central point occupied by a guard. From the dark centre the guard can see all the cells which are constantly lit, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. As a result of this the prisoners are aware that they might be watched at any time, but they don't know when they are being watched if at all. Bentham suggested that under such circumstances the prisoners would behave all the time.

In the 20th Century Foucalt drew upon Bentham's design as a metaphor for modern society in which we are observed from the centre and encouraged to conform to the norms of society. It is not difficult to see that in this model a small centre can control a large population. This is often referred to as "panoptic surveillance".

To some extent Bentham's model can be used to describe a group of students blogging. The tutor in the middle observes student blogs through RSS feeds, the students aware that they are being observed (but not sure when) will be encouraged to conform to the norms of the group and will participate in the learning community.
Or will they?

In the original panopticon the prisoners were not allowed to communicate with one another. In a community of bloggers communication is to be encouraged. One might assume that prisoners in the panopticon would attempt to communicate with one another.
Or would they?

One might also assume that a group of students asked to keep reflective blogs would attempt to communicate with one another.
Or would they?

One might assume that being aware of their possible audience (their tutor / their peers) such a group of students would be encouraged to reflect carefully in such blogs.
Or would they?

Blogging tools facilitate observation from the centre, allow communication to and from the centre, and communication around the centre. Encouraging the communication around the centre lies at the heart of effective use of blogging in a learning community. We need to consider how this can be facilitated.

Heleen van der Klink writes about surveillance on the Masters of Media blog in Amsterdam. Drawing on the work of Bentham, Foucalt and Giles Deleuze she takes the argument further and writes of "synoptic surveillance" in which a majority of bloggers watches a central minority. This is an interesting concept. Could a majority of reflective blogging students have a positive influence upon a tutor / department / university?

While researching the panopticon I came across the following. Enjoy.

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