Word of the Week: Panopticon

I will begin with my foible.

The book I’ve got my nose in these days is The Human Comedy by William Saroyan. I didn’t really expect to find a lot of unfamiliar words, so I thought my word of the week would probably come from some other source. Then, on page 15, I saw this sentence:

“Homer’s music fled before the hurrying clatter of three indredible objects moving across the sky.”

Indredible? At first I thought it was simply a typo and should have been incredible, which made perfect sense in the context. But it seemed familiar, like I should know what it was but couldn’t quite remember. I thought it might be a new word after all, or rather, a word that I had as a shaky entry in my passive vocabulary, but which was trying to make it into active duty.

I checked out my Webster’s first. Nothing. I looked for all forms of the word I could think of, but nothing was there. Then I thought it might be an older word, since Saroyan’s book was published in 1943. So I went to my OED. Once again, I got bupkis.

I finally checked the Internet. After telling Google that I really did mean to search for indredible and not incredible, I found not one, but two entries on the Urban Dictionary website:

  1. boning marathon:  boning marathon is an incredibly erotic time when a couple has tremendous sex for extended periods of time. A boning marathon often lasts for upwards of two hours. It takes indredible endurance from both the man and the woman. A boning marathon is often started after a lot of drinking. As we all know, drunks last longer….if not forever. You can usually identify the participants of a boning marathon by their walk. They usually walk a little funny after hours and hours of hoTT sex.
  2. indreadable: contraction of “dreadfully incredible”

I really, really, REALLY think that neither entry is appropriate for Saroyan’s usage.

And so I was left to conclude that if it talks, walks, and looks like a typo, that it is, in fact, a typo. I made a few more half-hearted attempts at finding an answer, and I finally figured out that indredible did seem familiar, but only because I was confusing it for dirigible, which is another word for a zeppelin. Oddly enough, dirigible would have made sense in the original context.

I gave up hope of finding a good new word and was going to resort to a bank of my favorite words, when I suddenly came across a bonafide New Word in a book review for Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex I found on the Internet. (Incidentally, it was written by the woman who writes the blog 3000 books.) The sentence was:

“Surely the panopticon-like accountability of the web would keep me honest?”

Ah! Panopticon! I instantly wanted to know what it meant. Panopticon is defined as “a building, as a prison,  hospital, library, or the like, so arranged that all parts of the interior are visible from a single point.” Looking back at the context, it is clear that the word was not used to represent a physical structure, but the concept of constant surveillance. Sure enough, some more poking on the Internet revealed that the definition of the word has, in fact, expanded enough to have cultural, political, and sociological implications. This, of course, is the excitment of learning new words: it’s never just about the definition, but about the worlds of thought and ideas that can be opened up.

So, I started to think. The Internet is a panopticon. It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Images or words that you think are private get you fired when your boss finds out. Credit card numbers are stolen. A typo in a search engine reappears as an advertisement in your email. We are under constant surveillance. Granted, we do this willingly for the most part. We know that our identity may be stolen, but we still bank, shop, and trade stocks online, don’t we? And to think, we used to only be worried about security cameras, government wire taps, and stolen mail. It seems a tinfoil hat just won’t cut it anymore.

The fact that we put so much of ourselves on display makes me wonder if we are building our own prisons. Some feel liberated by the freedom of the internet, but others may feel stifled by the sense that their every move is being watched. How free can we really feel to act if we are being observed all the time? Of course we can always drop off the grid, but isn’t there a middle ground? And how much control do we actually have? How does this affect our behavior and how we live our lives?Facebook, of course, is notorious for pushing the boundaries of what personal information is shared, and many people will complain about the invasion of privacy, but then fail to take the steps to protect that privacy.

We can’t have it both ways. We can no longer have an expectation of complete privacy, nor can we allow others to make those decisions for us. We should feel free to expose as much or as little of ourselves as we choose, and also to feel confident that the measures we take to protect our privacy aren’t suddenly taken from us without warning.

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