"He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection" - Michel Foucault
The panopticon - a theoretical prison building where a single guard in a central tower can observe all inmates at all times - was supposed to be the ideal architectural expression of modern disciplinary power. Ruthlessly efficient, it used people’s own paranoia as a means of exercising control over them.
The concept was deemed so reductive, mechanistic and inhumane that no true panopticon was ever built (the now abandoned Presidio Modelo in Cuba - pictured above - is the nearest facsimilie).
But perversely, we’ve all essentially gone and built one for ourselves.
Facebook’s ubiquity has reached the point where most users have built up networks so large, sprawling and broad that they represent only a faceless other - ‘them’.
Parents, siblings, actual friends, passing acquaintances, your boss, colleagues, former classmates you haven’t seen in 20 years, ex-girlfriends, their husbands - they all merge, blur and homogenise to become a big, unwieldy, meaningless ‘them’.
Dunbar’s theory dictates that you can only really ‘know’ 150 people. As a complex, sensitive human being, chances are you’re dynamic enough to know how to communicate with roughly that many individuals.
But the conglomeration of such disparate individuals into one network does funny things to people. We perform, we accentuate, we airbrush, we self-censor. It’s got to the point where many people find it hard to say anything vaguely meaningful, controversial, emotional or valuable on Facebook.
We all know this, deep down. Just consider how you use Facebook these days. We know that what we say could reach pretty much anyone. It’s the best thing about Facebook, but also it’s biggest challenge and the reason Snapchat et al are doing so well.
We’re incapable of conceptualising those few hundred or thousand people we’re connected to on Facebook as individuals, so instead we create a panopticon tower in our own minds.
This Facebook panopticon - everyone you’ve ever known merged into a single all-knowing entity which may or may not be watching - has a similar effect on pretty much everyone. Just as every personalised car numberplate essentially says ‘dickhead’, every Facebook post in the modern era essentially says ‘check me out, look how good I am’.
But we’re not prisoners in this new panopticon of our minds. We have a choice. And we’re making it, in small subconscious ways, every day. By holding back the things that have value, meaning, anything more than a superficial ‘see what a fun, grounded and fun person I am’, we’re trying to salvage some privacy from the all-seeing eye.
Networks are best when they’re relevant and specific. On one network you can be one thing, on the other you can be something altogether different. You pick and choose who to connect with. You can express the things you deem to be relevant and meaningful for different audiences.
Yes people enjoy the variety of being connected to real, varied human beings on social media - no one likes the boring bloke in the pub who always talks about the same thing - but when a network gets as big as Facebook the scale and breadth of the network itself becomes oppressive, stifling and an anathema to the openness that makes social media special.
We’re all multifaceted creatures - no one is only their job, no one is only their drinking buddies, no one is only a father or a daughter or a wife.
It’s why Google +, and other well-thought-through social tools, have adopted an altogether more sophisticated model, one where you can quickly and easily choose the segments or communities within your network you want to reach. You can be someone different, you can tailor your message.
Whether that level of sophistication will ever achieve the scale it needs to make it really valuable remains to be seen - God knows, Facebook have tried hard to introduce it.
But as it stands we’re all toning down, polishing up and airbrushing our lives on Facebook to the point where the world’s biggest social network is becoming irrelevant, meaningless and worth very little. In the clamour for more and more users, are social network owners giving themselves a ubiquity problem that could ultimately be their undoing?
Don’t give up on books. They feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.