The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Life in the modern panopticon

Mara Logan

You’re being watched. 

Surely, you know this. Maybe you’ve spotted the camera at every traffic light or in the corner of every room you’ve entered the last few years. You’ve probably seen the advertisements for downloading software to prevent people from stealing your information or, noticed a person in front of you in class with a cover over their computer camera.

This surveillance shift began in the 1970s and ‘80s, when security cameras specifically gained traction. As time and technology progressed, we found ourselves where we are now — the modern panopticon.

The idea of the panopticon was to engineer a circle of imprisoned people, centered by a tower hosted by only one guard. Since this singular guard can not see all inmates at once, it becomes impossible for prisoners to determine whether or not they’re being watched. This leads to self-governing, as being under the impression of constantly having an audience makes individuals act differently.

Unlike the prisoners in the panopticon whose presence is solely being seen, members of our society can also fulfill the role of the watcher. Tension is then caused between individuals, leading to the race to catch someone in the wrong situation before someone catches you. And, as media becomes more and more invasive, it becomes standard practice to record others without their consent and vice versa.

This is a feeling I know all too well, especially in terms of altering appearance. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself striving harder to always leave the house looking “presentable,” and this isn’t because I enjoy spending an hour getting ready every day. I live my life preparing to be caught on photo, film, or just simply the possibility of that version of me ending up on the internet forever.

Antony Kaspar, a junior at DePaul, says this is just something that’s become a norm.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” Kaspar said. “I’ve definitely thought about it, how much freedom people had, say, prior to the 2000s … It’s a big difference, and it would be nice not to have that (mass surveillance) at some points.”

In a 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 90% of American adults say controlling the information collected about them is important. But they don’t really get a choice when there are an estimated 60 million security cameras nationwide.

Considering the turmoil within our world, innumerable opinions are to be shared on social media. I always live on the edge of being in the “wrong” and recently, more than ever, sharing opinions online feels polarizing and nerve wracking, considering there’s often a preconceived right and wrong view.

This is self-censorship at its core, a concept in which people examine this constant fear of surveillance and work around it by constantly conforming to social norms within their actions and appearance.

Roberta Garner, a DePaul professor who specializes in sociological theory, said this can be one of the most common reactions from individuals in terms of society’s surveillance. 

“People get the feeling that it is better for themselves (and their family) if they are not too public in expressing their views,” Garner said. “The cost of being targeted by somebody who doesn’t like what was expressed outweighs the urge to be seen and heard, to express views freely, and to make public statements. So we risk creating a society in which people do not want to participate in public debates and in which they do not speak out on issues that they care about.”

Individuals who fall victim to self-censorship are stripped of self-expression and the ability to engage in the more unconventional activities they desire, leading to more unfulfilled lives as people feel forced to play the part of someone they are not.

Being in one of the first generations raised by the media, I knew from a young age exactly what was considered “cool” and the ways I should self-censor based on that. I wanted to be seen the same ways my idols appeared. I wanted a nose ring at nine years old because of my favorite “Viner,” and those feelings never went away.

I was 14 when I finally got that nose ring, and the same year, I stopped posting as often on social media because I noticed the content I posted wasn’t the kind that was popular. Social media became disengaging when I couldn’t utilize it how I wanted, and my time on the apps was spent learning how to replicate those I saw getting attention.

Many individuals can be influenced on what to say or think about ideas they don’t agree with, especially due to the parallels between being watched, social norms, and the recent development of extreme cancel culture. People being caught not conforming to the norms societies created for them often leads to complete defamation of character. Lives can become ruined over being caught in an instance that doesn’t agree with the majority.

“Even doing something very local, in a space that you think is just local — just a university, just a specific city — now means that everyone in the world will find out about it. The consequence is that public debate is less vigorous and maybe also less intelligent,” Garner said.

In a 2022 article from The Case Western Observer, Sarah Karkoff explains how absurdly the lack of privacy for others has evolved. She describes how recent media trends have allowed people to be scrutinized daily for performing outside societal norms. Or, in other terms, not self-censoring well enough. Karkoff writes, “there are an astonishing amount of TikTok videos showcasing people minding their business in public who are then shamed online.”

Francine Fournier, a DePaul freshman, said that she sometimes considers the fact that being recorded without consent could happen to her, which is, unfortunately, the reality of today’s society, yet she often ignores the issue.

“If I were to think about it all the time, I’d always be on edge,” Fournier says. “So, I try not to think about it.”

Lines need to be drawn on mass surveillance to relieve the distress caused by it. Without surveillance being mindlessly accepted, perhaps society can retract to when lives could be pursued without endless analysis. Perhaps I, along with so many others, would be able to leave the house without the fear of being unknowingly captured. With a backtrack on the personal information people tolerate to be taken from them, there will ultimately be the realization that others deserve the same privacy.

Society should not be stuck in this prison and, while there may never be a complete fall of the modern panopticon, there can still be a chance for reformation.


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