Surveillance State in the Post-Modern Era

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It has been years since Michel Foucault wrote his book, Discipline and Punish, and more than ever, this book is relevant to the ever intrusive and evolving tech world that we live in today. Dave Egger's novel The Circle is a testament to prove Foucault's theory. Technology not only has given government, especially authoritarian one a considerable amount of power, but it has also given individuals immense power over other human beings. The government studies an individual like an object, as a body without a soul. The one with the knowledge or means to attack another person will hack or hire a spy ware to surveille on another person. The theory of biopolitics is prevalent to today's world. No longer is your nest-door neighbor a spy, your phone will act as a spy on you if someone with power has installed a hidden spyware onto your phone. This is the biggest dilemma of the 21st century, where more than ever, privacy is becoming a luxury. Mae, by willing to live with full transparency, is living in a panopticon.

Michel Foucault was an influential French philosopher and social theorist from the 20th century. Foucault was associated with the post-structuralist movement, which is also known as post-modernism. One of Foucault's main theme is on how power and knowledge are used in social institutions as a form of social control. He learned that this form of social control is learned in the prison system and spread across societies. Prison is an apparatus of knowledge. Instead of focusing on the powerful versus the powerless, Foucault looked at power as a network of relationships. He believed that power relations are present in every human interaction. Dave Egger in his book Circle showcases the consequences of living under full transparency. The character, Mae gets a dream job at one of the largest tech company and worked her way to the top of the company, and the novel focuses on how Mae began to give up all of her privacy, and live in a Panopticon created by her company consented by her. She allows the company to control her and make herself the subject. He who is being watched and is aware that he is being watched becomes the principle of his own subjection (203). This quote is relevant to the panopticon system in terms of prison and in the Circle.

In the beginning of the novel, Mae is introduced to the Panoptic system of the company. For example, Reneta pulled up a childhood picture, which Mae though was only in her private possession. The other times was when Reneta was showing Mae her room through the elevator, Mae asked whether they put anyone with vertigo up on the fourth floor, Reneta said, Of course not. Your profile said(7). This is very alarming because in this employee/employer relation, we can see that because the company has so much private data on each employee, it has immense power over Mae and use it against her. This power only increases as Mae moves up the ladder of the company and opens up every aspect of her life. At the presentation about the Luvluv app, Francis was more than happy to talk about his relationship with Mae and she was disgusted that he didn't use a fake person (Eggers, 124). At this point, Mae still had instilled in her brain her old values and the company haven't fully indoctrinated her, but that will eventually change. Francis treating Mae as an object that can be humiliated in front of others by revealing private information like her film preferences, where she likes to jog just for the app to prevail. At this company, human life is not valued. In Foucault's Panopticon lepers and plague victims were branded, excluded, surveilled, studied. Foucault believed that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion and plague gave rise to disciplinary projects (Foucault, Panopticon, p.198). Similarly, Mae is being studied like a subject and statistic for an app.

There are two sorts of power. There is the repressive power, which has been in practice for thousands of years, but the new form of power that Foucault is mostly interested in is what he calls disciplinary power. The disciplinary power is practiced everywhere and at school, work and hospitals, people become subjects of surveillance. The Judges of normality are everywhere. The intention of disciplinary power is to make people docile, useful and therefore, ultimately making the body obedient and compliant (Foucault, 1975, p.138). When enforcing disciplinary powers, the emphasis is on time and space. Everyone is expected to be somewhere at a certain time. For example, at work, if you show up on time, you're considered a disciplined worker. The whole society is set up in a reward and punish sort of system. If you always show up to work on time, you get to keep the job. If you don't, you're fired. The structure or how the panopticon was built allows for the prison guard or warden to surveil and discipline the prisoners. Foucault wants us to see beyond the prison and see how the tactics used in prison are prevalent to the society outside of the prison. The employees of the company are made to believe that secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft (Eggers, The Circle, p.305). Because Mae's parents were signed onto her insurance plan at work, parent learned that all their information from medical treatment to their email and mailing address being public, and Mae being fully transparent, they learned to adjust their behavior (365). Nothing else but disciplinary power is doing the job in making her parents change their behavior once Mae is there because they know they are being watched. Parents are expected to spend 16 hours responding to commenters and if they don't, they get mad. The parents tried to explain all of these frustrations to Mae. This is example of self-censorship that Michel Foucault's speaks of.

Foucault argues that this prison model has expanded beyond the prison system. For instance, the school, hospitals, and workplace have all taken a part in this. After retaining disciplinary power, the disciplinary society is formed. In part, people become conscious and start to manage themselves without intervention from authorities because people understand that they are constantly being surveilled. People's individuality comes from their contact with these institutions. For example, the school they go to, and basically, the kind of society they are brought up in. Foucault (1975) says the practice of placing individuals under 'observation' is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures (p.227). Discipline is also seen as a rational way to manage populations. In The Circle when Baily meets with Mae, he is able to convince her that wearing camera is a good thing and that transparency is very important. He said to her, Your excess to the shadows, in this case illusory shadows, facilitates bad behavior. And when you know you're being watched, you are your better self. Correct (Eggers, The Circle, p.300). Mae says, Correct. So, this is the self-censorship that Foucault discusses. If Mae knows she is being watched, she won't commit crimes. If she agrees to wearing a camera in front of all the other employees and agrees to go transparent, the company now also have witnesses that Mae agreed to this and the company has no wrongs because she consented. This is a technique used to control an individual and constrain them to less than human. This is a rational way to manage the employees according to the company because now they can just watch their every action through the screen.

Foucault argues that we live in a carceral archipelago, which is a society filled with normalizing techniques (p.297). There are six effects of this archipelago. Firstly, behaviors are constantly being watched and therefore, abnormal behaviors as defined by society are easy to detect without the intervention from authorities. He argues that people who are different or maybe think different are seen as being same as an enemy of the state. Second, a disciplinary career was created and now people are easily visible to the state. For example, social security and more severely in the modern day, technology has given the state so much authority to illegally surveille its citizens. Third, he states that central to carceral was people's inability to resist because discipline is seen as normal and only way of surviving. The system is set up so that people can't resist. He claims that because people go to rehabilitation center to evade prison sentences, the power to punish is no different from that of curing or educating (Foucault, 1975, p.303). In The Circle, the company has instilled in Mae ideology that the company wants in her and she's normalizing it everywhere she goes. Mae learned that Francis was filming their sexual encounter, she asked him to delete the video, but he told her that we don't delete at the circle (Eggers, The Circle, p. 205). They are using a normalization technique described by Foucault to show to new comers to think that this sort of action is the new normal. Mae was worried that other employees might see the video because all videos on their phone are accessible for the company. When Mae pleaded Annie to delete the video, she said they don't delete at Circle, Baily, one of the top, considers these information as his babies. He is apparently an advocate for transparency (206). Mae is being introduced to the panopticon.

Mae puts herself into the panoptic system. Her physical body has become a docile body. First, she believes in the company or the company brainwashes her into believing their vision of full transparency. Mae punishes her loved ones because they questioned the intrusiveness of the company into their private life and she punishes them without the company doing anything in the process. Second, she allows her company to film her day to day life. The ideology of the party has reached her soul and controls her. The company does not foster thinkers but followers. The company is acting like a tyrant. In Michel Foucault's Subject and Power, he argued that humans are made into subjects and then, there's division within the subject himself or with other subjects. For example, people are either branded good or bad, etc. by society. In the Circle people are given the ability to rate the employees and therefore, they control the employees proving that anyone can control the panoptic system. Foucault also discusses how human turn themselves into subjects. Subject is defined by Foucault as subject to someone by control or tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge (Foucault, 331). Like the watchtower in Panopticon, the Circle also started their transparency plan by first installing a thousand SeeChange cameras and second, they put it in hallways, labsm and workares (Eggers, The Circle, 242). Mercer told Mae that everything her company does may look progressive, but is actually more control and centralized with the ability to track (261). Mercer raises concerns of how someone can abuse their power, but Mae dismisses his concerns and calls him a conspiracy theorist.

Michel Foucault believed that in the modern day, the objective of punishment is to target of the soul. The Justice System keeps a distance from the execution process and distributes the prison process to a political technology of the body (Foucault, 1975, p.30). As a result of this new restraint a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warder, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists, . (p.11). Foucault asserts that the system gathers knowledge about a person to control their body. The Justice system is there to correct and rehabilitate offenders and if possible, send them back to the "disciplined" society. People are disciplined in society and if someone breaks the rule, they are then sent to prison. Therefore, there is an ongoing cycle of constraints of the citizen's bodily activity. On a wall, Mae saw the saying in the company was: To heal we must know, To know we must share (Eggers, The Circle, p.15). This is the ideology that the company wants to instill in all of the circles. The doctor at the circle kept check on all of the employee's health, and coerce them to wear a wrist monitor that collects data on their heart rate, blood pressure, sleep duration, etc. (p.155). The doctor says that this monitor allows them to know when an employer is overworked so that they can reduce the work hours. In theory this example might sound reasonable, but in practices, the level of control they have over their employer will allow them to exploit them. In leper colony and plague stuck town, people's health was controlled and dictated by bureaucrats. The bureaucrats are controlling the employee's health decisions. Mae's parents had a lot of battles with their previous insurance companies which caused her mom the stop working (p.161) so she decided to add them to her work's insurance leading them to praise her so much about how she is the savior of the family only to realize later that their privacy is also being invaded by the company.

According to Foucault, the court pass judgments about an individual and brands them. Range them and if they fit their definition of insane, they are sent to rehabilitation centers. If not, they're sent to prison. He also asserts that modern prison system has formed this idea of having a calculated economy of punishment. By this he means that the modern system acts as if we know how much to punish a person. Power creates knowledge (Foucault, 1975, p. 28). This garner support for the system because the court is seemed as an entity that not only punishes, but also fixes society's illness. In The Circle, Denise told Mae that she has questions about her sense of self-worth and said she studied some models of behavior and her attitude is sub-social and certainly far from transparent. To Denise, being sub-social is considered as having low self-esteem (Eggers, The Circle, p.189). In Discipline and Punish, people who aren't disciplined or docile are punished and at the Circle, people who aren't transparent are branded as having low self-esteem. They're slowly indoctrination Mae into the party's ideology. Mae blames and scold herself. Denise is acting as the court, passing judgements about an individual and start branding and labeling them.

The technological capabilities that Mae was exposed to allowed her to at times act as a criminal. Although criminals know that what they're doing to be unethical and wrong, Mae acts like she's doing the victim a good deed. Also, she did not face any charges for her crimes and therefore, that allow for her to continue to act that way and to think that she's not doing anything wrong. The ideologies at the company is so deeply engrained into Mae's life that she wants her parents, ex. To be transparent just like her. Mae's characteristics are relatable to a lot of millennials and older generation alike. Due to the availability of social media, people choose to share their thought, where they are, what they are doing without a second thought of what the companies are doing with their data. It is so deeply engrained in our mind that we feel the we have an obligation to give daily updates. Social media also has a better memory than people. If a person post something years ago, others may dig it up and scrutinize the person. Little do they think that people grow over time and what they might think years ago might not reflect the person they are now. This can create environment where people start to practice self-censorship. People are treated like statistics and not human beings that can make mistakes and grow in life.


  1. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. (A. Sheridan, Trans). New York, NY. Random
  2. House, Inc. (Original work published in 1975).
  3. Eggers, Dave (2014). The Circle. New York, NY. First Vintage Books Edition


After reading Foucault's Panopticon' for class for the second time, I realize that surveillance was a topic of interest for me. I wanted to write about surveillance because with the improvement in technology, more and more companies are now able to create apps, phones, spyware, etc to track people, collect private information and sell them. I realize that more people need to be aware of this and the implication and consequences if people don't act to weigh the pros and cons. If allowed, corporations or criminals will use our information against us. Some consulting companies make billions of dollars in collecting our data and then, selling them. For example, Cambridge Analytica unethically collected data from Facebook on behalf of the Trump Campaign. Not the companies but we should have ownership of our own private information. What we buy, search, browse is not anyone's business but ourselves. When I spoke to professor, and because she recommended the book The Circle to me, I realize the deeper implication of transparent world, and updating social media every hour. After reading, The Circle, I gained a new perspective of how to apply Michel Foucault's Panopticon. The panopticon, The Circle, is democratic. Mae had control over Mercer and her parents, etc, the company had control over its employees not by physically punishing them but by indoctrinating and exploiting them.

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Surveillance State in the Post-Modern Era. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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