Consumption Junction: Agency and Panopticism in a Digital World

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by lana lynne on January 4, 2012
While there are those among us who thrive in the digital world, and eagerly await the next new way to "share our stories" or to put technology to good use, there are others who have a more pessimistic (some might say paranoid) view of the virtual landscape many traverse with abandon. A view closer, perhaps, to the latter end of the spectrum arises in Joel Bakan's essay on, "The Panopticon." Here, Bakan explains social media marketing vis-à-vis Foucault's ideas of power in a disciplinary society, mapping out a closed system of sorts, where children passively trade advertising messages while the puppeteer brands watch from behind the curtain. "Sharing" has seemingly taken on a new dimension on social media platforms: 
Marketing as marketing disappears within the viral networks of social media platforms. Boundaries are broken down between marketers and kids (as kids market to each other); between content and advertising (as advertising now infuses, rather than interrupts, content); and between kids' lives and entertainment (as their lives now become the content of that entertainment). It is truly the "perfection of [marketers'] power." Kids, like the prisoners in the Panopticon, now bear the power marketing holds over them, and the marketers, like the Panopticon's guards, drop from view, their power now automatic and self-executing, all the greater for its invisibility. 
Bakan is clear about his interpretation; he uses the panopticon as a tool to understanding the ways youth advertising works online. As reports surface of the access that advertisers have to profiles on Facebook, or the amount of personal information stored by Google, it's obvious that power is shifting into ever-murkier depths. But, without coming across as a pop culture apologist, I think it's important not to simplify the situation so that it fits into a complex theory, and what I find most interesting about Bakan's piece is the many directions it sent my thoughts about online advertising. First of all, consider the agency of internet users. Some would say it's naive to believe that we're not simply acted upon by marketing messages, and yet, some of us, at the same time, are the creators of these messages. Second, the panopticon works in theory because prisoners (or members of society, as the case may be) believe they are being watched at all times. Is that the case with social media? Or do we read more and more articles on the shocking online displays of what once would have been considered private information? Like I said before, many of us traverse these territories with unprecedented abandon.

Also consider the children of whom Bakan speaks as agents in this situation. Each successive generation becomes more technologically savvy than the previous one, and with that, might there also be inherited a certain knowledge about what lurks behind the curtain, so to speak? What's more, kids are reading and writing more than ever before thanks to texting, chatting, etc., and, according to the National Literacy Trust, literacy rates are reflecting that growth. A study reported in 2009 suggested "a strong correlation between kids using technology and wider patterns of reading and writing," and found that "engagement with online technology drives their enthusiasm for writing short stories, letters, song lyrics or diaries." Hopefully, more reading and writing also helps critical thinking skills, which can only come in handy on the digital frontier.

While I have my own strong suspicions about marketing messages and the identities they inform, and how that relationship, in turn, is fertilized by social networks, I also wonder if our concerns are slightly exaggerated. Think about this: in 2010, Apple (largely considered a marketing genius) spent less than 10% of its $420 million advertising budget on digital advertising. Maybe, all that online surveillance is just going to waste.
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  1. i think, you could possibly program someone who is already willing to buy; to choose which thing to buy. but to be willing to buy excessively, thats probably another issue. something about being "trendy" perhaps.
    "apple" has become a kind of a religion as far as i can see, around and on the web:> its not considered consumerism any more :> :>

  2. john j.12:23 PM

    Interesting post. Especially important to consider here is the question of youth and online surveillance and advertising. It would seem that as younger generations are raised completely in the digital age, they may be less able to critically think about such issues. The way the internet exists is just 'normal' and why would you question it. There is no other different world to reflect back on or draw from.


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