In 1786, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham published a little book with 56 pages, The Panopticon. In it, he described an ideal prison built according to a revolutionary principle : one guard within a central tower can see all of the prisoners without himself being seen. Based on the same principle, his brother devised the plans of a factory in which the workers could be supervised without knowing when this would occur.
The principle relies on the feeling of “invisible omniscience” and complete transparency. Knowing that they might be seen, the individuals control themselves. Through this system, Jeremy Bentham imagined that the prison guards could be far less numerous, or even take leave in secret. He also suggested that the tower be open to “the curious, travellers, friends or family of the prisoners, or acquaintances of the prison officers, who will supervise the leaders just as the leaders supervise all of their subordinates.”
Georges Orwell repeats this idea in 1984 : at the heart of his totalitarian fictive society, humans live under the gaze of “Big Brother”. In 1975, philosopher Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish made the Panopticon a metaphor for the disciplinary society. Being seen without seeing, seeing without being seen... Science fiction, from the Star Wars series to videogames such as Freedom War, replays a panoptic and futurist view of the world over and over again.
Our digital life now echoes Bentham’s ideal prison. The city dwellers that journalist Guy Birenbaum comically dubbed “the tribe of lowered heads” walk with their noses riveted to the screen and their every moment is followed. Photographic traces are multiplying, what with selfies, images of happiness, and photos of dishes at restaurants. They are recorded by servers with infinite memory and classified by sophisticated algorithms.
The holidays are obviously the kingdom of our life in two dimensions. One Chinese traveller, whom Jeremy Suyker followed for 6Mois on her tour of Europe, congratulated the guide who chose “the best places for photos”. And Corentin Fohlen, who went to follow the hikers on the Way of Saint James, told us when he came back that he had to find new angles to avoid taking too many photos where the hikers themselves were photographing themselves.
The life of a European teenager just like that of a resident of Hong Kong is now a series of successive images, of oneself, the world, and staged pleasures. We film and photograph both ourselves and others : today, with bare faces, but tomorrow, by simply pressing on an arm of one’s glasses or murmuring imperceptibly into a microphone. In 1983, Apple caused a sensation by broadcasting an advertisement announcing that with the launch of Macintosh, “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”. It was an illusion : digital does not protect us from Big Brother but can replace it. Acxiom, the American firm that is the world leader in digital marketing, chose as its slogan : “We give you a 360° view of your clients.” Both subject and voyeurs, we are evolving within a mise en abyme worthy of the Panopticon.
A former metalworker in South Korea, who became a lecturer in Germany, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han is a major thinker from the other side of the Rhine. The latest of his two books (not yet available in English) is called Im Schwarm : Ansichten des Digitalen [In the Cloud : Thoughts on the Digital World] (Matthes & Seitz Berlin). It is a little gem, containing 107 pages. Byung-Chul Han reminds us that “it is to a deep and contemplative attention that we owe the cultural productions of humanity.” He invites us to look at and listen to “the bird of dreams”. That is what we are trying to do at 6Mois : to lift our heads, look at the world, at others, at elsewhere, and talk about it. Deemed pointless by image banks or online catalogues, photojournalism is a fragile and threatened island of the simple life. With no other filter than that of the photographer’s gaze, the world is singular and disquieting.
Laurent Beccaria, Patrick de Saint Exupéry et Marie-Pierre Subtil