Media Ethics as Panoptic Discourse: A Foucauldian View

Document Type

Contribution to Books

Publication Date



Morals reformed… by a simple idea in Architecture! … A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind. (Bentham, 1995, from the 1787 title page of Panopticon; or The Inspection-House)

Humanity … installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. (Foucault, 1977b, p. 151)

Visibility is a trap. (Foucault, 1977c, p. 200)

The literature of media ethics recognizes that any medium, globalized, or regionalized, is more than a technology. Ever since the alphabet met papyrus and the scribe, shifts in media relations have meant shifts in social relations and our actions in the midst of both. Even the nature of sociality and our understandings of it accompany media. Newspaper reading on the 1920s streetcar (Hardt, Brennen, and Killmeier, 2000) fixed displays of the private into public view. Microbroadcasts of class, literacy, contemporality, and content interests thus extended cues of surveillance while providing conventionalized invitations to possible conversation. Today's brand names announce e-readers shrouding potentially shareable interests, as flesh-and-blood screen readers seem increasingly immune from conversational bids or personal judgments about who they are and with whom they associate. A shifting media world shrinks the social environment during material transport – the subway, perhaps, or even the greener version, walking – while faster, one-way windows ensure that people are no longer judged by the covers they hold or the virtual pages they turn. Surveillance and suppositions about others has gone digital. Meanwhile, “monopolies of knowledge” (Innis, 2008) associated with “changes in the technology of preserved communication” (Havelock, 1963, p. xi) acquire a Foucauldian read: scribes become metaphors for human subjects working within and through regimes of power-knowledge (Foucault, 1980), as concrete human beings inscribing themselves through the power of the panopticon (Foucault, 1977c).