Contesting the Nepticon – description

January on empyre soft-skinned space (you can join the list-serv discussion at
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Contesting the Netopticon

Moderated by Simon Biggs (UK/Australia) with invited discussants Joseph Delappe, Marc Garrett, Davin Heckman, Patrick Lichty, Heidi May, Christina Spiesel and Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead.

Dear empyre subscribers,

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) described an apparatus he termed the Panopticon, intended to condition the behaviour of subjects by disallowing them knowledge of whether they were being observed or not, causing them to fear they were. The space Bentham sought to control was the prison, seeking to replace capital punishment with a penal system focused on rehabilitation. Janet Semple’s study (Semple) evidences Bentham’s correspondence, suggesting an intent to establish for-profit penal institutions based on his Panoptic model.

George Orwell, in his novel 1984 (1949), evoked a state of perpetual government surveillance designed to crush deviation from mandated behaviour, seeking to implant the self-governing mechanism within the psyche of the

Michel Foucault employed Bentham’s conceptual framework as a motif for social order in an interpretation that has become an intellectual touchstone. In Foucault’s vision, mapped out in his seminal 1975 text “Discipline and Punish” (Foucault), the Panopticon extends far beyond the prison and manifests as a pervasive property of social space and relations, the dark matter of power relations.

The Panoptic structures innate in social space are often cited in relation to the internet and its governance. The term “Netopticon” (Shoshan) suggests a mesh-work structure of how a socially networked Panoptic apparatus can
operate. Malkit Shoshan describes how the social technologies that characterise Web 2.0 facilitate the emergence of the internet as a Panoptic space, where individuals are complicit in their own surveillance, echoing Tim Lenoir and Henry Lowood’s analysis of the computer game as a platform for the seduction of the individual into the military-entertainment complex (Lenoir & Lowood).

The internet is pervasive in how people construct their social lives. If we accept that “people” are emergent, through social activities that are a process of becoming, issues around net neutrality, Web 2.0 and surveillance have implications reaching into the psycho-social. Within a Foucauldian appreciation of the social, where the Panopticon (nee: super-ego) is manifest at the heart of our social relations, the Netopticon engages our entwined individual and social ontologies. How will the codification of individual and collective relations develop?

In the deluge of information released through Wikileaks, and the political and legal fall-out from that, the metaphor of the Netopticon appears especially pertinent. Wikileaks has sought to turn the gaze of the Panoptic
eye back upon itself, revealing those who would seek to remain invisible behind a one way mirror. When the observer becomes visible the Panopticon can no longer function. The Wikileaks affair foregrounds how Panoptic space can be a contested space. As events unfold we witness the lengths that governments will go to in order to protect their “cover”. States, such as the UK, Australia, Sweden, Zimbabwe and the USA, have sought to constrain or “render” Julian Assange and compromise the Wikileaks operation. Corporations, many with media interests, are visible conspirators. At the same time there are those operating from the “other side”, seeking to preserve freedom of speech, an open internet and access to information. Wikileaks has, by turning the Panoptic gaze back upon the observer, struck a significant counter-attack in what might be considered an asymmetric info-war.

During the month of January we will discuss issues concerning the internet, identity, surveillance and tactics of resistance. Our guests are:

Joseph Delappe (USA), an artist and Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. His recent projects, often inflected with humour and political import, have included re-enacting Ghandi’s 240 mile Salt March in Second Life and sponsoring the first Second Life avatar to run for the United States Senate.

Marc Garrett (UK), an activist, artist and writer and co-director and co-founder (with artist Ruth Catlow) of internet arts collectives and communities, and HTTP Gallery in London. Through these platforms various contemporary media arts exhibitions and projects are presented nationally and internationally. Marc also hosts a weekly media arts radio programme on Resonance FM and last year co-edited the publication “Artists Re: thinking games”. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Birkbeck University, London.

Davin Heckman (USA), the author of “A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day” (Duke UP, 2008). He is Supervising Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory ( and Associate Professor of English at Siena Heights University, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, and media studies.

Patrick Lichty (USA), a technologically-based conceptual artist, writer, independent curator, animator for the activist group The Yes Men and Executive Editor of Intelligent Agent Magazine. He began showing
technological media art in 1989 and deals with works and writing that explore the social relations between us and media. He is also an Assistant Professor of Interactive Arts & Media at Columbia College, Chicago, and resides in Baton Rouge.

Heidi May (Can), an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Vancouver whose work examines how we understand and communicate experiences with/in digital technology, particularly interpersonal aspects of these
relationships. She is currently undertaking a PhD in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, addressing the topic of networked art, art pedagogy and relational learning. Heidi also teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Christina Spiesel (USA), a visual artist, co-author of “Law on Display, The Digital Transformation of Legal Persuasion and Judgment”. She is based at Yale where she is a Senior Research Scholar in Law, a Fellow of the
Information Society Project and member of the Technology and Ethics Working Group of the Institute for Social and Policy Studies. She teaches visual persuasion elsewhere.

Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead (UK), artists who are fascinated with how global communications networks continue to transform the way we perceive and understand the world around us. They live and work in London and Kingussie, in Scotland, make artworks for galleries, online and sometimes outdoors. Jon lectures at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, while Alison is lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths, University of London and University of Westminster respectively.


Foucault. M, (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (English translation), Penguin.

Lenoir. T & Lowood. H,

Semple. J, (1993). Bentham’s prison, A study of the panopticon penitentiary, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Shoshan. M,

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