Panopticon

The private ego is the most precious thing we each have, and it is far more vulnerable now than ever before”  Tomorrow’s People, Susan Greenfield, 2003

Modern Madness, by Louis Sass, 1992, explores the disordered self of schizophrenia to illuminate the nature of normal psychology.  The self, it seems, is not a self, but is selves.  We are at least three, an immediate-being self, a social self, and a self-observing self.  Particularly in modern times, the self-observing self must also be the leader self, the self-managing self. We are this mental multiplicity, and we need to be integrated. Modern times may be working against this.

Michael Foucault wrote of the Panopticon, a prison architecture in which inmates were to be housed such that they were always under observation, while never able to see their observers.  This was proposed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1885, and he theorized that this predicament would uniquely disarm a person psychologically, creating a state of mental confinement that would reduce the need for physical confinement. Somehow, in the naked presence of omniscient observation, one’s self-observing self would not be able to ground its functioning in a place of privacy, and thus weakened, it would be subject to outside direction and control.  In this theory, the self-observing self is built and maintained by direct personal experience – experience that we differentiate from the experience of others – and to achieve this, privacy is an absolute requirement.

Lady Greenfield, Oxford neurophysiologist, cross bencher in the House of Lords, controversial popularizer of science, has fears that modern forces are eroding the personal self.  The mind is plastic, she knows very well from her research, and its experiences determine its nature.  For her, that increasingly ubiquitous experience – computer screen experience – which is fast becoming the dominant mental experience of young people – with its hypnotic suspension of self observation, its enhancement of immediate being, its artificially instantaneous feed back, its blocking out of prosody and gesture, its insulation from social emotion, its replacement of body-kinesthetic experience, its displacement of personal pedagogy – is undermining the development and integrity of the self-observing ego of young people.  She notes the explosion of ADHD, the prescriptions for ritalin, and the growth of autism – the latter a condition very comfortable with computer screen experience. For Lady Greenfield, a diminished personal ego is susceptible to GroupThink, and to fundamentalisms. She worries that the internet is driving this weakening and collectivization of the self.  She cites Bertrand Russell:

Man’s collective passions are mainly evil; far the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry directed towards other groups.  Therefore at present all that give men power to indulge their collective passions is bad.”

Are we building a panopticon?

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