Foucault, panopticism and digital power

“Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power.”
Michel Foucault, “Society Must be Defended” lectures

Renowned French philosopher, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has been relentlessly misunderstood (perhaps partially for using terms like “heterotopia” and “noso-politics”).

Furthermore, despite his groundbreaking work on identity, he has been consistently misidentified, for example as being a Marxist, not a Marxist, a relativist, a pessimist, a determinist, and myriad other philosophical abuses.

6235101_origIn reality and above all, he was an observer, and one who generally left the job of passing judgement or finding solutions to his readers.  He turned an exceptionally astute and analytical eye to humanity and its social systems giving us a whole new view of our history, our power structures and ourselves.

For example: while power is often thought of as something someone important (like a king) “holds”, Foucault saw it very differently.  He revealed power to be highly distributed, diffuse and relational. In the modern world, the pressure we feel to behave in certain ways is often disconnected from any particular person or organization.  Instead it’s embedded in social norms, social structures, institutionalized rules, networks and even physical spaces.

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault famously refers to utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham’s invention the “panopticon” as a metaphor for decentralized power through surveillance and self-surveillance.

The panopticon is a prison design in which individual cells surround a tower at the centre from which a guard could, at any point in time, be looking. The prisoners never know when the guard is looking (like with a one-way mirror), but because it’s always possible, they behave as if watched, thus, disciplining themselves.

Bentham saw his invention as stupendously excellent design for its economical efficiency, and he imagined it should be applied to schools, hospitals and other institutions as well.  For Foucault, this panopticon is a metaphor demonstrating how power, at one time associated with a sovereign, became embedded into the very institutions, and architectures of the spaces we live in.

The microphysics of power and self-tracking

Foucault refers to a “microphysics of power” or the way power manifests throughout a network, reaching into every nook and cranny of our private lives. For example,  “regimes of truth” define what it is to be normal by exclusion (eg. by excluding those labelled “homosexual” or “mentally ill”).

self-tacking-3You could even say that Foucault anticipated movements like the quantified self (self-tracking) when he described a tendency towards forms of self-surveillance. If you’re tracking your steps as part of changing your body you may be under the influence of what Foucault called “biopower” which is power exerted over people’s bodies and self-formation.

Now take a moment to consider Bentham’s panopticon from the brave new world of the the live stream, the smart house and the location tracker.  Some 40 years after Foucault wrote his final lines, the landscape of surveillance and power relations has exploded into dizzying complexity.

Power has changed. We now live in a world in which people are fired from employment based on drunk pictures on Facebook, while victims of police brutality use the same technology to film their perpetrators in action.

Social media can be weaponized to undermine democratic elections and divide a nation, or mobilized to support resistance against an oppressive regime. Relations of power are constantly redefining themselves through technology, and this interaction of powers in all directions, dominant and resistant, down into the capillaries of society, can be seen as powerful amplifications of what Foucault identified in the last century.

Meanwhile in the quiet background, the companies that own and develop technologies continue to gather and mobilize increasing information about all of us for the purpose of commerce.

Where commerce or advertising ends and propaganda begins has been a point of moral dilemma for these companies. Even if we position them as benevolent keepers of our information, they create a massive social vulnerability – a major opportunity for diffuse control by any with a motive to power (ie. Cambridge Analytica Scandal).


Just a few decades after Foucault’s death, the digital gaze has taken micropower to quantum levels with a network so diffuse it is difficult to escape it even temporarily. Victims of cyberbullying often distinguish it from traditional bullying by its lack of boundaries; it follows you home.

“Panopticism” can now even be predictive, anticipating, based on big data, the future of our health, mental health and behavior, and companies like Google invest in improving these predictive capacities on behalf of their advertisers.

As a society we have to decide whether we believe there should be no limits to commercial, government or social surveillance into our lives, or if we believe there is indeed psychological and social value to limits, and where and how we place them.

In what ways do digital technologies allow regimes of power to infiltrate deeper into our lives? In what ways do they allow us to fight back?

We’d love your thoughts…


Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
“Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976

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