The Panoptiverse

Shortly after the Facebook Connect keynote, the one where Zuckerberg introduced Meta and their vision for the Metaverse to the world, a meme did the rounds:

Lots of gesticulating and the word experiences over and over again. It was pretty funny.

People were right to poke fun at this. Zuckerberg said the word experience 43 many times during the course of his 75 minute presentation. However, I was more interested in the number of times he talked about work. In fact, when you remove references to the work required to build the metaverse, work in the metaverse was mentioned 23 times. 1 Curious when you consider that Meta isn’t a company one would closely associate with the nine to five.

But there was good reason for this. If you go back to basics on what drives Meta’s business model you’re reminded that it’s essentially a massive advertising platform where our attention, and the data that can be inferred from it, is extracted, processed and used to sell advertising space. Meta have proved to be the best in the world at converting the data they collect about us into advertising, and yet despite this, the gains that can be made from more accurate targeting are likely to have been diminishing for some time. If you want to make a lot more money, you need a lot more attention.

Somewhat simplistically you can divide the attention Meta has right now into two buckets — communication and entertainment. While these are significant chunks of our daily lives, they are dwarfed by the time we spending working. A platform shift may well be coming, but if Meta only replaces the Instagram on your phone with Instagram on your new AR/VR goggles the size of the pie doesn’t necessarily get much bigger. If the platform shift includes an ability for them to facilitate our time at work, the platform shift has not only been successfully navigated, it’s also been a huge growth story. More of the attention pie, more data, more ad dollars. It all makes sense, right?

The Panopticon

Back in the 1800s the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed the concept of a Panopticon. The Panopticon was a prison in which a single guard could watch over all the prisoners from a control room by virtue of its clever room design. Michel Foucault reignited interest in the Panopticon when he used it as a metaphor for the state, and internet theorists have long been fascinated by the idea of the Panopticon and its relation to the evolving web. In the 90s Mark Poster argued that the connected web of databases that form the Internet represents some kind of “super-panopticon” one that doesn’t have a clear centre, and when social media first emerged during the early days of Web 2.0 it was considered to be a reverse panopticon, one where the user was the centre and everyone watched. But then, as our understanding of the technology developed, Christian Fuchs argued that social media was in fact a classic panopticon, as it was Facebook (now Meta) themselves who sat in the control room watching over us all.

What is so nightmarish about Bentham’s design is the totality of it. The prisoner is incarcerated in solitary confinement giving the controller an unrestricted view of their daily life. Putting to one side the debate over whether we have a choice to engage with social media or not, our attention is still limited by its ability to facilitate communication and entertain us. At some point, most people need to go to work. So while Fuch’s was right when he argued that social media was analogous to Bentham’s classic work, there was still an obvious limit. But if Meta can make your work a central part of the metaverse, if work becomes more “social”, their slice of your attention has just increased dramatically. You might not have reached gargoyle level, but you’re one step closer to the Panopticon — the Panoptiverse maybe?

The Guards Problem

One of the things that often gets over looked when discussing the Panopticon is that Bentham was, in part, interested in the question of who guards the guards? James Crimmins explains how, to this end, Bentham developed “the inspection principle” that would ensure that the warden and their subordinates would be subject to public observation from time to time. Bentham thought the close observation of the prisoner would help root our bad behaviour, but he recognised that this went both ways. If the guards weren’t watched as well, what was to stop them acting irresponsibly? 2

The complete failure of governments around the world to successfully regulate social media suggests that 200 years on from Bentham and we’re still struggling with the guards problem. What is more, given the hugely complex issues surrounding the safe implementation of digital worlds. And a business model that ties time spent online with profit so ruthlessly. It feels to me like we should be both concerned by Meta’s expansion into the metaverse, and reject the notion that they can govern themselves effectively.

1. You can read the full transcript of the keynote presentation on Rev.

2. Crimmins, J. E. (2017) 'Panopticon', in Crimmins, J. E. (ed) The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Utilitarianism.

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My name is Dan, I'm a product manager living and working in London and this is my blog. I write about startups and political economy. Read more about me.