Social Dark Matter: On Seeing and Being Seen

You probably remember a grade school teacher who seemed to have eyes at the back of her head. Somebody who could walk into an unruly classroom and with just a look, quell the disorder and get everybody back into their seats. When such a teacher enters a classroom, any mischief underway is abandoned instantly. Those caught in the teacher’s direct gaze freeze or try to scramble back to their seats. Those who think they are in peripheral vision try to duck and hide. Those who believe they haven’t been seen try to flee.

This sort of teacher possesses an authoritarian eye: a way of seeing shared by certain sorts of effective teachers, drill sergeants, sports coaches and the sorts of large organizations that James Scott explored in Seeing Like a State.

The classroom example illustrates something important. Authority and responses to it are primarily about seeing and being seen, rather than doing or having things done to you.

When you know you’re being watched by an authoritarian eye, you voluntarily behave in simpler (or equivalently, more orderly) ways than when you know you aren’t.

The difference between the two regimes of behavior is social dark matter. And in today’s digital social environments, it is starting to behave in ways we don’t really understand. Because we feel watched in ways we don’t really understand, by forms of authority we have never experienced before.

The Video Version

Before we proceed, here’s a little movie about the ideas in this post. It’s about three minutes long.

The themes I am here are necessarily a bit abstract, and I’ve been using a little simulation model to explore them. This movie was created using that model. It’s a poignant and somewhat campy bit of almost-abstract expressionism, if I do say so myself.

Now let’s get back to business as usual. Words and such. Computer models can only take us so far.

Seeing and Being Seen, Digitally

I first started thinking in terms of dark matter a few months ago after reading a post by Toph Tucker that argued that a significant amount of social activity on Facebook was starting to retreat to the privacy of secret (unlisted) groups. Tucker argued that activity in these groups accounted for the discrepancy between the continued robust traffic growth of Facebook on the one hand, and industry watchers’ opinions that Facebook had somehow peakedAs he put it:

There is a discrepancy in the apparent pull exhibited by Facebook. Among industry-watchers, 30-somethings, preteens, and social media cynics of all stripes, there’s a strong narrative that Facebook is already passé.

Secret groups on Facebook, Tucker argues, account for the discrepancy and should be thought of as Facebook’s “Dark Matter.”  Such groups are rising in popularity (I am part of several) and for many Facebook users, activity within secret groups dwarfs activity that is more broadly visible.

I think this argument is essentially correct, though the specifics might change as digital communities evolve. I think Tucker’s notion of Facebook dark matter is worth generalizing to all social realities, whether physical, digital, or hybrid.

So that is what I am going to try and do here.

The Participatory Panopticon Chases its Own Tail

The dark matter idea complicates a related idea: James Cascio’s notion of the participatory panopticon (basically a situation of “everybody watching everybody else, all the time”, where the authoritarian eye is at least partly the eye of the collective itself, operating alongside various algorithmic Big Data eyes).

The metaphor of dark matter suggests an interesting situation where the collective is trying to retreat from its own omniscient gaze as much as it is trying to retreat from the Big Advertising Eye.

Managing the trade-off between seeing and being seen is something we’re naturally wired to do. Every time you pick a table at a restaurant, you are relying on ancient instincts that have evolved around this critical everyday decision-making behavior. Some of my favorite social science research, by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, concerns these instincts. Turns out humans choose the same sort of complex but legible environment when presented with sets of photographs of both natural and urban settings.

But it is not clear how these instincts play out when our sensory cues involve a scrolling stream of mixed media updates on a small screen, and our minds model the situation as some ambiguous mix of “community”, “graph” and “algorithmic Big Brother.”

The last element is of course, the newest one, and the only reason we aren’t in more of a panic about it is the banality of its primary association with advertising (but then, authority in action is usually banal to watch).

We have some useful instincts around “community” that port to the digital realm. Thinking about matters of kinship and genealogy has prepared us at least a little for navigating globe-spanning social graphs. But an algorithmic Big Brother is a new element in the environment.

Unfamiliar Controls

We have far more control over seeing and being seen digitally than the rather alarmist notion of a participatory panopticon suggests, but the problem is that these modes of control are deeply unfamiliar to us: avatars, anonymity, degrees of separation on a “graph”, complex privacy settings, augmented reality glasses.

These are not modes that work well with highly evolved subconscious instincts that map seeing/being-seen decisions to choosing physical locations in highly visual environments. Trying to apply existing instincts is like suddenly trying to use existing language skills to operate in Braille.

The situation is similar to the early twentieth century when two powerful new technologies, the automobile and the airplane, became available, but most people did not immediately acquire driving or flying skills. For several decades, most people remained primarily passengers, at best exercising control by ringing a bell to request a stop while on a bus. Driving eventually became a commonplace skill in the developed world, but flying never did (though it might now, if everybody gets a drone).

For the Internet, browsing is like riding a bus and occasionally getting off one bus and getting onto another. Content creation is like driving. Few do it now, but it should become as ubiquitous in a few decades as driving today. I suspect that programming, like flying, will remain a minority skill for quite a while.

Browsing, content creation and programming represent different levels of autonomous control over seeing and being seen digitally. But acquiring those skills is not the same thing as knowing what to do with them. To get there, we need to understand more about the enactment of authority.

The Enactment of Authority

That we behave differently depending on who we think is watching is a fairly trite observation. When a child is watching, we make funny faces. When somebody we find attractive is watching, we preen and posture. Voyeurs make sure they can see without being seen. Pick-up artists make sure they can both see and be seen.

What makes the gaze of authority special is that the watched voluntarily simplify and order their own behavior to prepare to act on the desires of the watcher.

This is the reason authority induces power. Just by looking, it turns what it sees into a ready and waiting instrument capable of enacting its intentions within a space of desires. Authoritarian seeing is like a magnetic field acting on a domain of free agency.

It is useful to understand authority as an enacted process rather than an attribute of a system. We can represent the authority process in general terms as this imaginary sequence of commands:

  1. “Stop whatever you are doing” (abandon autonomous intentions that might compete with mine)
  2. “Fall in” (enter a waiting state, prepare to do my bidding)
  3. “Form a single file” (conform to a known, ordered state)
  4. “Do X” (execute my intention)

The important thing about this sequence is that when authority is real, the first three steps often happen without any explicit instructions or cues beyond awareness of being the gaze of the authoritarian eye.

In fact, the first two steps happen naturally and require no training or special conditioning. The eye only needs to be perceived as an authoritarian eye. The third step — getting into a known, ordered state — is context-dependent and might require more or less training.

This is where design enters the picture.

Authority and Design

The idea that an authoritarian gaze might naturally precipitate a simple ordering in what it sees suggests something interesting: design may be an optional extra in the enactment of authority.

James Scott’s association of authoritarian ordering of reality with a specific aesthetic — high modernism inspired by scientism — is not always necessary. The ordering effects of authority existed before Le Corbusier came along with his platonic visual ordering schemes that attempted to turn human communities into imperial apiaries. They existed before reformist authoritarian forces co-opted science and mathematics into the rhetoric of authoritarianism.

The authoritarian eye can cause the precipitation of order without recourse to environmental or instructional design. The threat of violence is sufficient. As in the programming of computers, simple and ordered states are better starting points for action with predictable consequences. But the first two steps of the authority process may suffice in many situations, to create enough order for authority to be exercised in highly leveraged and predictable ways.

You do not need to imagine, specify and impose something like a platonic design such as a military formation. Authority works in simpler ways. Alpha chimpanzees do not need to train the troop to wear uniforms and march in military order to exercise authority. A disorder-quelling look will do (and remember, “disorder” includes any autonomous activity that the authoritarian eye does not care to understand).

For a long time, this idea — that authority is more about seeing than doing — eluded me. Accounts of the authority process such as Scott’s emphasize the consequences of positive action on the part of the authoritarian force. Simpler versions of the idea, such as the parable of Chesterton’s Fence, also focus on what the authority does or does not do.

I think we’ve gotten it backwards.

The Primacy of Authoritarian Seeing

I am convinced authoritarian design is merely the cherry on top. At least in dealing with social realities, what is more important is what the authority sees or does not see.

Why? Because authority exercised through direct coercive action is inefficient to the point of being useless beyond a certain scale. But authority expressed and exercised through the authoritarian eye is nearly infinitely scalable. The source of this leverage is of course the fact that humans (and agents in general), unlike non-sentient matter, can recognize and respond to being seen. 

So action can be restricted to the rare instance of “making an example” of an unfortunate victim. Such action actually reduces the effectiveness of the authoritarian eye beyond a point.

The condition of a social system that has submitted to authority is a sort of self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating collective learned helplessness. It has to be. Otherwise the authoritarian eye would not be worth acquiring, with or without imposing cathedrals and plazas for support.

We pay so much attention to positive authoritarian actions because their consequences are so disproportionately visible (high modernist city plazas, grand cathedrals, UI design decisions by Facebook employees, and so forth), and because we tend to attribute all the effects of authority to those actions.

The bulk of the dynamics of authority, however, lie in the voluntary actions precipitated by the authoritarian gaze. In particular, the self-ordering and self-simplification on the part of those caught in it.

If you stop whatever you are doing and pay attention to authority, much of the authority has already been exercised. You are already useful and usable in your waiting state.

For the authoritarian school teacher, who has yelled “Sit DOWN and SHUT UP!” a few times, like the bus driver on South Park, this ordered state is relatively simple to precipitate with just a look. For a military unit, this ordered state represents a far greater degree of discipline and potential for predictable action.

But in both cases, potential for predictable action– a waiting state — has been created by a look.

But what happens when the authoritarian eye is not looking somewhere?

The Emperor, Incognito

The authority process is the source of both the power and the weakness of authority.

The authoritarian eye creates the known, ordered state that turns the subject of authority into an instrument for the expression of authoritarian intentions. This is power. The leveraged potential created by the threat of force.

But in inducing this ordered state, the authoritarian eye also blinds itself. How does that happen?

Let’s go back to the example of the teacher walking into a classroom that is up to some mischief. Consider the four basic responses.

  1. If you are front-and-center, freeze
  2. If you’ve obviously been seen, scramble back to your desk
  3. If you think you might not have been seen, hide behind a desk
  4. If you’re sure you haven’t been seen, run

All four behaviors are responses to varying probabilities of having been seen in a state that might attract punishment. But instead of the wild behavioral response — fight-or-flight — we get the modified pair of behaviors characteristic of social species that operate under in-group authoritarian threat: submit-or-retreat (exit-or-voice is a more refined descendant).

But in all four cases, the very act of authoritarian seeing removes useful information from what is being seen. There is a reason we have the trope of emperors sneaking out of the palace and walking among the people as commoners. If the authoritarian eye actually wants to know what is going on, it cannot be seen to be watching.

But when the emperor cannot wander his realm incognito, a fundamental trade-off exists for any agent that seeks to exercise authority over a social system between power on the one hand, and knowledge on the other.

The Power-Knowledge Trade-off

When a social system enters an ordered state under an authoritarian gaze, it loses information, like a hard-disk being wiped clean. If the authoritarian gaze persists long enough — a human generation say —  the information loss can be permanent.

This is the problem Scott identified as the loss of tacit knowledge, metis, under an authoritarian gaze.

In our running example of the authoritarian teacher in a mischievous classroom, consider the state of free play that is disrupted and transformed into a state of ordered readiness for command.

The consequence that the teacher wants — stamping out of any brewing dissent and rebellion that might make the class ungovernable in the future — is achieved. But what is also stamped out in the process is anything the children might be learning or figuring out in that state of free play.

What makes the authoritarian gaze a net lossy gaze in an objective sense is that some of that information might actually have been valuable to the authority itself.

Submission, Civilization and Retreat

Humans (and other social species) have a category of responses specific to in-group threats of violence from authority: submission. 

As a first approximation, we can say that submissive behaviors are also nascent civilized behaviors.

The first two of the four responses I listed represent submissive social behaviors under an authoritarian gaze. They can range from fearful to proactively compliant or even eager.

The last two represent retreat behaviors. Depending on how quickly and unpredictably the eye moves and how much it sees, retreat behaviors may represent more or less of the response relative to submission behaviors.

In one extreme case, the eye may see so much, and move so fast and unpredictably, it freezes everything that is going on and sees an accurate snapshot of social dark matter in motion.

In other cases, it may see so little and move so slowly and predictably, that all agency (not just information) retreats away from the path of its gaze, leaving it staring at emptiness wherever it looks. This is authority weakened to uselessness (and the basis of the common trope in action movies involving heroes among ninjas or in dark forests).

So to summarize, the authoritarian gaze changes reality, simply by looking at it, in ways that both strengthen and weaken its position and potential. The part of reality that submits to the gaze represents power. The part that retreats from view represents weakness and potential challenges to authority.

Now here is the interesting thing: by forcing such a division between a space of retreat and a space of submission even when the natural behaviors are harmless or potentially useful to it, the authoritarian eye creates its own enemies and plants the seeds of its own destruction.

In the classroom example, if the teacher is known as a tyrant who expects perfect, orderly stillness when she enters the room, retreat is an act that criminalizes the potentially non-criminal.

Say ten children are animatedly discussing an exciting homework assignment, but when the teacher enters, one is too far from his desk to run back, he tries to duck out and run.

The very act of running makes him a criminal.

The ordering effect of the authoritarian eye carries with it an implicit negative judgement of retreat: if you have nothing to hide, why did you run?

Questions to Ponder

I’ve been battling the flu and wrangling tax and book-keeping issues for the last week (scurrying about under the authoritarian death-and-taxes eye so to speak) so I didn’t have time to cover everything I wanted in this post. So this is probably going to continue in some form. I don’t like to commit to a post series, given my record of going off the rails whenever I try, but we’ll revisit this stuff. Probably.

For now, I’ll leave you with a dozen important and obvious questions that I did not address:

  1. What is the difference between social dark matter in retreat, versus social dark matter that is merely unobserved?
  2. What changes when we substitute a participatory panopticon for an external authoritarian eye? In the movie, I’ve modeled the simpler case of an external panopticon. Clearly the “spotlight” of the gaze of the authoritarian eye would get coupled with the state of the “population” in the participatory case. How does that work?
  3. How does a moving technological frontier change things? Does social dark matter continually retreat into an open expanse, chased by an advancing authoritarian eye? Or does it eventually get confined to nooks and crannies too unprofitable for the eye to peer into?
  4. How does the emperor wandering incognito differ from a “half the population is spying on the other half” police state (a state that is at least superficially very similar to the modern emerging structure of digital reality)?
  5. Can the authority-knowledge trade-off be broken? Or at least managed in a different way? (I believe it can; you just have to give up predictability, but you can retain the authority itself).
  6. Is the algorithmic Big Data eye a locus of authoritarian agency in its own right, or does it merely redistribute agency among  the participants in the panopticon based on their skills and resources (which would make rich data scientists pretty powerful)?
  7. How does all this interact with social interaction design — the warrens-and-plazas ideas from Xianhang Zhang that I explored a while back in relation to legibility.
  8. How does active rebellion work? What if the dark matter, instead of merely submitting or retreating, acts to subvert the authoritarian eye?
  9. Is retreat necessary for rebellion? Can the authoritarian eye be hacked by what it sees in plain sight? Search engine optimization is an obvious example. Does this generalize?
  10. Conversely, can we design an Eye that causes useful information to flow into its gaze voluntarily, rather than retreat? (I believe so, but it comes at a price).
  11. Do digital realities render pre-digital modes of dissent and retreat meaningless? Are things like Bitcoin really subversive in a traditional sense? In the movie, I put in some traditional anti-authoritarian rhetoric as a joke. It is not clear to me that digital politics will be the same as non-digital politics.
  12. I’ve been tossing around a placeholder notion of centralized artificial digital agency (Big Data, Big Algorithm, etc.) People with dramatic imaginations usually go straight to Skynet and the Singularity, but I think what is actually emerging is a very different beast. What is the nature of this beast? What, if anything, does it want? Does it merely precipitate a useless, ordered waiting state wherever it looks, that does nothing for anyone? (that’s my null hypothesis)

We’ll see where we get with these questions if and when I get around to them. Don’t hold your breath though.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I have to contest the suggestion that all authority is “seeing” and/or “being seen.” Such a definition ignores the authority that one holds over the individual self.

    Indeed given my own lack-luster economic situation, most of my decisions are based strictly upon the fact that I am, if anything and nothing else, still the authority of myself. You can’t take away the authority that individuals take themselves to act upon in whatever manner they are capable of.

    So much of this post is premised on the idea of an “emperor” I suppose I might be pushing the authoritative boundaries here (running to my seat perhaps) by asking where, or what exactly is the modern, republican, example of this meandering commonly dressed “emperor”?

    Following this line of thought I am skeptical of a “Panopticon” if for no other reason than no authority is by itself alone. There’s a saying in the military that, “inside of every army there is a crowd fighting to get out.” I think this is very applicable to your point here. The Panopticon as you envision it is generalized authority; which as any ex-military will tell you that such authority behaves in multi-polar ways.

    Taxes are a good and telling example as they are quite narrow in scope. Sure you have to comply with the evil overloads, but if you don’t want to do it in April and if you take authoritative action yourself you can extend “THE” deadline considerably. The individual does have power in these situations which the model does not address.

    If you think about the “taxes” example in a generalized frame you will see the finer graduations I am referencing. If you failed to file taxes chances are you wouldn’t have to deal with your local police; rather, you would only deal with IRS figures whose “authoritative vision” or “seeing” as you call it or is actually quite limited.

    In the same manner the local police are constrained by multi-polar sources of “authority” that starts with the local council and goes all the way up to the federal level. So in such a way there is no “pan” or singular authority. It is questionable to suggest a police state without any real evidence that such “panoptic” authority is indeed being exercised. A state is made up of many smaller authorities and these authorities often don’t communicate fully or “internally” as suggested by a panoptic model.

    I think you have some good stuff here, however I think your model seemingly ignores the very real bureaucracy that exists with any authority: one individual or group can only do so much when in places of power as their “seeing” exists over their own limited subordinates.

    If anything the powers of virtual-presence have coddled people into thinking they themselves (or other people/ groups) have extended vision; when in-fact such “virtual” spaces remain well “virtual.” This actually reduces the overall “seeing” of the whole situation.

    In my bottom-up appraisal, The internet represents the ultimate narrowing of vision as: CEOs, COOs, and managers now no longer feel the need to leave the office as they can use their virtual “panoptic” eyes and see “everything” that is happening on the production floor.

    • Ho-Sheng Hsiao says

      Two comments.

      (1) This is an interesting adjunct to … I was curious about the state of complexity theory. I had not thought through much on the Boids simulation. I can see how, the authoratative gaze might dink with three variables in a Boids sim, to change the outward behavior of the flock.

      (2) Lately in my personal meditative practice, I’ve been learning to use a different kind of a gaze. I had not identified my past practice as “authoritarian gaze”, but that was essentially what I was attempting when I sit in formal mindfulness meditation. Recently (since about two, three weeks ago), though, I’ve been trying something else. I am not sure how to verbalize it, but the latest iteration is more akin of a kind of attention that allows for self-organization.

      Your thoughts on the authoritarian gaze makes me want to experiment with developing a “self-organizing gaze” and applying it to other people. Then again, this “self-organizing gaze” is probably what the Taoist meant by “wu wei”, heh.

      • Ho-Sheng Hsiao says

        Oops, did not mean to sub-comment that one.

      • “(2) Lately in my personal meditative practice, I’ve been learning to use a different kind of a gaze. I had not identified my past practice as “authoritarian gaze”, but that was essentially what I was attempting when I sit in formal mindfulness meditation. Recently (since about two, three weeks ago), though, I’ve been trying something else. I am not sure how to verbalize it, but the latest iteration is more akin of a kind of attention that allows for self-organization.”

        I am curious about this. I have started doing a new (for me) type of meditation. In one part of it, you must breathe rather rapidly and shallowly for a few minutes. I found this very difficult for a few weeks. Eventually I learned that simply by making myself more aware of my lungs, and how much air was inside, as well as the abdominal and other muscle groups I was using, that the airflow began to simply regulate itself. It sounds almost like a trope, but I just relax and keep a clear consciousness of what’s going on, and my body just takes care of the situation…. Is this similar to what you’re describing?

        Looking at that even deeper, “[…M]y body just takes care of the situation” seems like an unnecessary level of misunderstanding. Perhaps awareness IS the necessary action. Whereas before I thought it was activity.

        Anyways, am I grokking your meaning? I would like to know what you’ve discovered along these lines.

  2. I am an English teacher and I’ve tried to seriously address questions five and ten. I do want the kids to get the benefits from free play and exploration. If I immediately quash everything they’re doing in order to make the classroom easily manageable then I’m short-changing them for sure. I’ve boiled the rules down to be safe and don’t interfere with somebody else who is trying to learn. I strive to explain the most common examples, “If Sarah cannot hear me and I cannot hear her, then I cannot help here in any meaningful way.” Kids understand that.

    Ultimately, the best set of trade-offs are probably going to happen when we all have a common goal and the authority is just another piece of the puzzle contributing to flow.

    In the business I run, I think of myself as a manager, though I bootstrap all the funds, and handle most everything. But the manager is just one job. Obviously I am not an engineer, content creator, or manufacturer. So, I don’t think of myself as something more than just one guy in the structure. Same with the classroom. I’ve literally started feeling as if the students are my “coworkers” and I’m just one piece of the puzzle. I ultimately intend to be supportive of the students, primarily through increasing their skills.

    Most days this works pretty well….. I think there’s a lot of bleedover from other authorities that they want to kill, so sometimes just from stopping dangerous behavior (such as extremes of chair leaning), I get the dark “I want to slice your throat open” look from kids.

    • I’d be interested in hearing more about any strategies you have for #10. One thought that occurred to me was Keith Johnstone’s “low status” teaching model (also the famous, Servant Leadership model).

      Adopting a low social status posture while actually possessing significant authority might be a way to get information to flow into, rather than out of, the field of view.

  3. I really should read this again carefully, but I hope you’ll forgive an first reaction:

    Two forms of authority:
    1) the single external ‘eye’
    2) participatory – all monitoring each other

    Where does this leave Mother and Father?

    Take some idealised (cliched) family – 1950’s suburbia? Father out all day working hard to bring home the bacon. Mother at home looking after the (younger) kids, doing the household chores. Mother and Father share authority.

    Father is ‘blind’ like the emperor. He’s away most of the day and doesn’t see the kids as their ‘true’ selves. The kids are on best behaviour when he’s there. He administers discipline. His authority lies perhaps in part in that he doesn’t see everything that goes on and doesn’t understand the finer points of how and why Billy hit Jonny. He’s a kind of remote authority.

    Mother is there all day with a watchful eye. She sees most of what the kids are up to, even if she pretends to see less than she really does. The kids play freely around her. Most of the day, the kids are within sight, or within earshot. Mother only really intervenes when someone’s hurt or things are getting badly out of hand. Of course, Mother still has some authority, power to discipline, restrain, or whatever, and she may also channel Father’s authority. (You wait till your father comes home!)

    No doubt, there are other dynamics too. Pecking order amongst the kids; ‘telling’ on each other; interactions with other families and the wider neighbourhood. But leaving those aside for the moment…

    Is the point not that Mother and Father communicate? They have a shared responsibility *and* share information. Mother sees much more than Father can see. Father’s presence affects the behaviour of the kids, but he doesn’t need to spy on them, or go incognito; he gets sufficient information from Mother. In turn, Mother doesn’t tell Father everything; she filters (sometimes shields the kids), gives Father only a proportion of what she’s seen.

    I believe George Lakoff has written about these two sides with regard to political parties and ideals. I’m afraid, I haven’t read more than the briefest summary.

    But surely, rather than one form of authority or the other, this ‘separation’ of powers means that the kids, for most of the day, are both seen and don’t mind being seen.

    • I was thinking along these lines as I read the post as well. I keep coming back to unpredictability being the required ingredient to maintain full knowledge and be able to invoke control.

      Using the mother/father example, the mother can shed the air of authority fairly well during the day but the kids aren’t stupid. They know that she can “unmask” at any time so any behavior that they know will cause her to change, they hide. How many of us knew what it took to “set mom off”? I know I did, so I did those things clandestinely as I’m sure most kids do. If mom could be anywhere at any time (unpredictable), there’s a higher chance that she could gather still more information about what’s going on in the house. Suppressing one’s air of authority helps to bring some information out but unpredictable presence goes even further.

      • I think unpredictability probably involves a couple of elements; panopticon relies on one element of unpredictability – you don’t know when you’re being watched, so you must assume you’re being watched at all times. This strikes me as very dehumanising. Initially, at least, it’s likely to result in a dramatic curtailment of otherwise natural behaviour. Longer term, perhaps it would result in a kind of Russian Roulette, or maybe complete indifference and apathy. As far as I can tell, panoptican would be seen to have worked if all the prisoners were completely passified at a minimal cost.

        The other element of unpredictability which may be ‘effective’ is inconsistency in application of the ‘rules’. If Kyle B. knew what would “set mom off,” then there was some consistency. And that consistency is important, I think, to our notions of justice. This applies to the sanction or punishment, as well as to identifying the behaviour that is or is not acceptable. Unpredictability in either the punishment for a given offence, or in the setting of what constitutes an offense, is again dehumanising. (Just to clarify as far as the family metaphor goes; as the kids grow, there is more scope to do things out of sight of Mother. Maybe this is part of the process of gradually teaching kids to be independent. Furthermore, there are *some* behaviours for which context is important. Swearing, for example, might be undesirable. If little Jonny is in the yard on his own and swears, or if he’s with his friends and swears, or if he swears at his friend, or if he swears in front of Mother, or if he swears (heaven help him!) at Mother, these are different grades of ‘undesirable’ behaviour. Context matters for many behaviours, even if murder is still murder when committed out of sight.)

        I think that unpredictability is unacceptable…I was going to say ‘in general’, but clearly a police patrol can be more effective by being unpredictable; sentries who patrol the same section of wall at the same time every night are easily evaded. So, I guess that is closer to Mrs B. than, say, a police patrol that doesn’t always stop when it sees a crime being committed. I do think the human element is important – it’s fallible, but can still be just.

    • Interesting, I hadn’t thought of the mother/father angle. But that seems more like bad cop/good cop rather than outside/participatory. Moms in most families may be gentler/more tender than dads, but they are still external authority figures in the kids’ world rather than manifestations of participatory panopticon ways of seeing…

      … but I could be wrong. I don’t have kids and am not female, so perhaps in some metaphoric sense at least, moms feel a kind of attunement to kids that makes them effectively participatory panopticon hubs or something.

      • I don’t think Mother-Father is outside-participatory, but I think good cop-bad cop perhaps doesn’t quite do it justice either. Like good cop, Mother is more likely to have the kids’ cooperation. Bad cop and Father might bring fear into the equation. But Mother and Father are not merely extracting a confession.

        Panopticon is extremely sinister. Participatory panopticon strikes me as doubly so. I think of regimes where neighbours and even family members grass on each other. This seems to be dehumanising in the extreme. All trust breaks down. As I’ve said to Kyle B, above, I think that unpredictable is bad. Perhaps I’m twisting his definition of unpredictable. Perhaps I should have said arbitrary (though maybe not in the way you’ve used the word in relation to culture). I’m not sure. But I think that many good parenting guides would quite reasonably stress consistency. Mother’s role in the kids’ lives is not simply to catch offending behaviour; Father’s is not simply to administer punishment.

      • A good example that I have second-hand experience with of “Panopticon” thinking is Mormons. A Mormon friend of mine summed up the whole church culture with the following joke:

        Why do you take 2 Mormons fishing with you?
        Because if you only take one, he’ll drink all your beer.

        • Humour’s a strange thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Mormon, but I’ve just spat coffee over my keyboard.

  4. Authority as an eye which “freezes” behavior because it is somehow threatening. I admit I didn’t like the article and I do think the model is childish.

  5. Alexander Boland says

    There’s another potential way in which the authoritarian eye could hold the seeds of its own destruction. If the authoritarian eye is an epiphenomenon of the “panopticon”, then it requires the skills and knowledge of the subjects that make it up. In that case, if tacit skills are being destroyed by forced legibility via the authoritarian gaze, the panopticon may lose some of the very processes that power it.

    For this reason, I view this whole concept as being some kind of dialectic or cycle rather than a mere ever-expanding process. That, and the fact that technology probably creates an arms race between authority and dark matter rather than just giving authority more power.

  6. My parents both grew up under Stalin. The first thing I thought of when you talk about authorities watching you, private “groups” etc, was Stalinism, not Facebook – that was the culmination of a society where everybody was watching everybody else. Probably too many ideas to cram into a comment, but to me it would be interesting to analyze from that perspective.

  7. Ho-Sheng Hsiao says

    Two comments.

    (1) This is an interesting adjunct to … I was curious about the state of complexity theory. I had not thought through much on the Boids simulation. I can see how, the authoratative gaze might dink with three variables in a Boids sim, to change the outward behavior of the flock.

    (2) Lately in my personal meditative practice, I’ve been learning to use a different kind of a gaze. I had not identified my past practice as “authoritarian gaze”, but that was essentially what I was attempting when I sit in formal mindfulness meditation. Recently (since about two, three weeks ago), though, I’ve been trying something else. I am not sure how to verbalize it, but the latest iteration is more akin of a kind of attention that allows for self-organization.

    Your thoughts on the authoritarian gaze makes me want to experiment with developing a “self-organizing gaze” and applying it to other people. Then again, this “self-organizing gaze” is probably what the Taoist meant by “wu wei”, heh.

    • I’d have thought you would identify the meditative gaze with the opposite of an authoritarian gaze. A sort of submission=loving-kindness gaze that draws information in rather than ordering it. You’re submitting your mind to reality rather than attempting to shape it with desires.

      There’s a 2×2 here: authoritarian vs, submissive gaze (status dimension) and inward vs. outwards directed (own thoughts vs. behaviors of other agents).

  8. Ho-Sheng Hsiao says

    Also, Venkat:

    I remember reading a bit about dynamics of betrayal, and the tendancy for small groups to “punish their own.” How do you think betrayal dynamics play out with the authoritarian’s gaze?

    • Theres two distinct notions of betrayal and punishment here I think. Standard prisoner’s dilemma defection (where authoritarian gaze=prison warden) and defection within the swarm (where warden = participatory panopticon). I can think of a couple of ways to model both in a coupled way. Current model is purely individual-eye dynamics with no p2p effects. Spatially, I’d model defection as falling into the order and cooperation/non-betrayal as fleeing the gaze.

  9. In section “The Enactment of Authority” you allude to it, but I think the model in general is missing the necessity of a belief of desire for the gaze to have any authority.

    “That we behave differently depending on who we think is watching is a fairly trite observation. ” is true only inasmuch you want something from the watcher or the watcher wants something from you. You can exist within the field of a gaze without being influenced by it. Ordering proceeds from the knowledge of desire. So while you indicate steps 1-3 and 4 as sequential (1-3 being the gaze, 4 being the effect), the truth is that they actually occur simultaneously. The form that the authoritarian gaze organizes is an expression of the desires that a significant force has. I think you allude to this when you say: “Just by looking, it turns what it sees into a ready and waiting instrument capable of enacting its intentions within a space of desires.”

    To complete your model, if the gaze is the ordering magnetic field, influence/power is the charge and desire/need is the electric field, which means that desire/need is the motion of influence/power. Furthermore, what matters most is not actual desire, but perceived desire by the smaller agents.

    I think this works out a lot of the questions automatically.

    So for 10 for example, Google’s motto ‘Don’t be evil’ exemplifies an authority whose desires are aligned with that of it’s users. This causes information to flow into the gaze of google.

    Such a model also suggests that Ho-Sheng’s new meditation practice shifts in that the conscious gaze is no longer seeking anything from the thoughts that arise. When the motion of largest charge in the self slows, the charges of the individual agents are more significant and can self-organize, forming a participatory panopticon or at least a space with a new, less significant authoritarian eye . Perhaps the goal of enlightenment is to make the mind a participatory panopticon?

    The idea of authority overriding the self-organization of smaller charges also provides an avenue for the information loss of the gaze. By reducing the impact of small actors/charges and enforcing its own organization, the information embedded in the previous form is lost. The very form of the charges always holds information about the charges. So exercising authoritarian gaze can be like putting a clunky shoe on. If your gaze is too strong you risk losing the feedback embedded in the form’s natural architecture. This is why the NSA and Hari Seldon attempt to see without expressing their desires upon what is being seen. Intelligence agencies have great authority and power and are always looking, but by not expressing their desires, they retain perceptual acuity.

    • Agh, meant to touch this up so it maps more appropriately:

      To complete your model, if the gaze is the ordering magnetic field, influence/power is the charge and desire/need is the electric field, which means that desire/need is the motion of influence/power. Furthermore, what matters most is not actual desire, but perceived desire by the smaller agents.

      Perhaps more appropriate would be if desire/need is like inverse resistance, so that high need is low resistance to influence, leading to greater motion of influence, leading to a more powerful magnetic field/gaze, etc.. Regardless of the exact mapping to charge, e field, current, etc. the model would greatly benefit from explicitly accounting for influence and desire. There would be much greater explanatory power.

  10. As I read this, I think of North Korea, and I wonder if it’s a situation where the eye has gotten so powerful and so permanent, it’s flushed all of the noise, color, agency, and meaning out of the system, leaving a massive, hyper-responsive blank slate – an empty extension of the great leader’s will.

  11. Model suggestion:
    The first thing I would do, is try to play with the intensity of the gaze. You could adjust the allowed span and speed of “free” movement in the “ordered” state according to the intensity setting (try a gaze with a variable strength with the distance from the gaze center, try multiple gaze circles, with intensity adding up where they coincide, try adding a “cumulative” effect where the longer an agent is “under” the gaze, the intensity it feels “builds up” etc.).
    The second would be to try and model the participatory panopticon- each agent possesses the option (randomized over time and/or space and/or vicinity of the “authoritative” gaze) to gaze by itself at some direction (randomized), to some distance (more limited than the “main” gaze, and also can be randomized) and for some duration. The intensity of the “agent gazes” should be lower than the main gaze, but as we said above they should be able to add up.

    I wonder what parameters would the “multiple gazers” scenario need to meet to get the same level of order as the “state gaze” in the social settings.

  12. Great article. I’m particularly excited by your foray into animation as a way to construct an argument. I think you’re right to say that the reactions we have to the gaze of authority are deeply instinctual, but heightened by years of training. In some ways it is more difficult to come to grips with the algorithmic eye because it tends not to operate on a visual plane. But, like the eye of the state tends to encourage the same forms that are efficient in architecture (clean lines, forced hierarchy). I think we may be able to tease out a relationship between our online social behaviors and the architecture of software. I wonder if our behavioral patterns are beginning to conform to a subset of behaviors which could be represented by a SQL query, or the friend-of-a-friend patterns built into social graphs.

    Your video reminded me of an experiment some friends and I conducted on our college campus a few months ago. We raised a time-lapse camera over the big sports field at the heart of campus with the help of a large and very visible weather balloon which was tethered to the corners of the field. I should say it was an “experiment” with very large quotation marks because the visibility of it rendered any kind control impossible and the video is so shaky that it can’t really be analyzed. The project was mostly about introducing a visual metaphor for the participatory panopticon. But I think you might be interested in the results, and their similarity to your “computer simulation”. The project is documented at if you want to take a look.

  13. My father, now retired, was a judge for 21 years. He was renowned for his over-the-eyeglasses stare that would make a lawyer’s mouth dry up instantly. Since his retirement I have spoken with a number of lawyers who commented on it.

    And yet, as far as I can tell, he used that look sparingly. Lawyers have spoken to me of his courtroom as being well regulated – no disruptions or grandstanding – but also fun. Apparently there was a collegiality and restrained, dry humor when appropriate.

    There is something to be said for establishing clear, just, and fixed boundaries and then letting people act freely within them. My father’s gaze encompassed the courtroom but he didn’t use it as a constant bludgeon. Lawyers were free to engage in the strategy and creativity of their craft within the rules of legal procedure. My father’s role was of a referee rather than a dictator.

    Here’s a rough quotation from when I asked him about a lawyer he disliked: “It doesn’t matter whether you like or dislike someone. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the way someone is dressed, or their politics, or religion, or even if they can’t hide their disrespect. When you have someone’s fate in your hands it’s fact and law, law and fact.”

    When the authoritarian gaze is backed by a respect for rule based utilitarianism it can be liberating.