THR Web Features   /   February 11, 2014

Self-Knowledge in the Age of the Digital Panopticon

Jay Tolson

Drawing of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon (Wikipedia Commons)

A short piece in the British thought journal Prospect, "Quantified Self: The Algorithm of Life," reminds me once again that satire of the dystopian variety can barely keep up with what the real world throws at us every day.

Drawing of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon (Wikipedia Commons)

I have in mind the recent novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle, which follows the career of a bright young thing who becomes a rising star in the utimate tech company, a sort of hybrid of Google, Facebook, and half a dozen other cutting-edge cool shops. The Circle, as the eponymous firm is called, puts all your social media and personal digital data together and allows you to accesss them under your own uber-password. It provides one-stop shopping for those who want to be connected to everything, even while seeing to it that those connections (and, of course, the personal data) are assiduously monitored, stored, and exploited to bring you even more of what you don't yet know you want.

But a digital panopticon fulfilling Jeremy Bentham's vision of the relentlessly surveilled life is so close to being realized in the real world that it almost puts Eggers' fictive imaginings to shame.  Josh Cohen in his Prospect piece describes a tech-driven movement of self-quantification that comports perfectly with the world of the Circle, even bringing to it a higher, finer resolution:

Quantified Self (QS) is a growing global movement selling a new form of wisdom, encapsulated in the slogan “self-knowledge through numbers”. Rooted in the American tech scene, it encourages people to monitor all aspects of their physical, emotional, cognitive, social, domestic and working lives. The wearable cameras that enable you to broadcast your life minute by minute; the Nano-sensors that can be installed in any region of the body to track vital functions from blood pressure to cholesterol intake, the voice recorders that pick up the sound of your sleeping self or your baby’s babble—together, these devices can provide you with the means to regain control over your fugitive life.

This vision has traction at a time when our daily lives, as the Snowden leaks have revealed, are being lived in the shadow of state agencies, private corporations and terrorist networks—overwhelming yet invisible forces that leave us feeling powerless to maintain boundaries around our private selves. In a world where our personal data appears vulnerable to intrusion and exploitation, a movement that effectively encourages you to become your own spy is bound to resonate. Surveillance technologies will put us back in the centre of the lives from which they’d displaced us. Our authoritative command of our physiological and behavioural “numbers” can assure us that after all, no one knows us better than we do.

No, Cohen does not believe this.  He knows that there is no end to the monitoring and the new devices, no end to "more data accumulated and shared." But he is concerned less with the loss of privacy than he is with the misguided search for self-knowledge through more and finer quantitative measurements. He eloquently describes the panic that may begin to set in even at the outset of such a quantitative quest, a panic that, if not suppressed by other technological measurements, may lead to a valuable insight:  "Perhaps the self you really want to know, and that always eludes you, is the one that can't be quantified."

True, of course. But perhaps the saddest thing about Cohen's lament is how it registers on the mind of even one who agrees:  How quaint Cohen sounds.  How truly quaint.