Monday, 25 May 2009

Panopticon Vision: viral imaginative synergy in open networks

pendle panopticon exterior view

The 'Atom' Panopticon at Pendle is an amazing piece of interactive art.  From the inside the ferro-concrete structure  frames both the landscape and the sky, providing discrete circular views, each of which reflects onto the central stainless steel sphere. As one moves around within the 'Atom' the pattern of reflections changes, as does the focus of attention through each of the apertures. Of course at any one moment much of the surrounding countryside remains unseen. This mix of direct vision and reflection, of framing and light, is at once both powerful and thought-provoking. It is also a very individual experience of perception, imagination and interpretation.

pendle panopticonThe English philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term panopticon for his humanitarian design of model prison. The word as used today, with its sense of 'all in view', can carry negative connotations of one being under surveillance without necessarily knowing that this is happening. Our own government's panopticon fervour for a society under surveillance, with all the threats to civil liberties which this entails, is well documented. In the case of the 'Atom' sculpture  however, the word is blissfully neutral and simply refers to "a structure, space or device which provides a comprehensive or panoramic view".

Standing within the 'Atom' I was struck by the thought that here is a representation of how faith works. The shape speaks to me of our concrete worldview, that combination of values and beliefs which determine not only what we see but how we see it. Yours will be different to mine. The actual bits of reality that catch your attention need not be the same as those which catch mine. The reflections in the sphere give us an opportunity to try and put the bigger picture together. Here I am drawn to compare the sphere itself to the life of Jesus as disclosed in the bible and explored in theology. It is on this surface that we do our sense and soul-making, illuminated by the light of God's loving-kindness.

So your 'Atom' will be uniquely yours. And for the first time in Christian history we now have the means of sharing such individual panopticon visions of faith, spiritual viewpoints and theological reflections within and across networks, traditions, countries and continents at rates and in volumes which are quite unprecedented. It is hardly surprising then that the internet is now taken to be a participatory panopticon; what you think, see and believe can reach a global audience. Rapid change in Christian praxis is now a hard wired  consequence of the way we communicate in a digital world. As Mulder and Scully used to say, the Truth is Out There; now it can be in here , downloaded and making a difference  to me and my network with one simple click. Our global participatory panopticon is the collective experiential cloud of millions of 'Atom' viewpoints. Web 2.0 faith is a reality.

And within it ideas spread virally. The rise and spread of emerging ways of being church and their constitutive networks might be an example of such pandemic theology in action. Because such networks tend to be open the information within them is highly transmissible and can easily infect other networks too. Such digital reproduction has similar benefits to sexual reproduction in terms of  the continuing evolution of Christianity; the mixing of ideas and specific bits of praxis, like mixing genes,  increases the potential for adaptability, vitality and vigour in the face of a rapidly changing or heterogeneous environment. Such imaginative synergy is probably a real driving force for rapid change in our time. To be shut off from the pool of such genetic variation is to play the evolutionary equivalent of russian roulette. Denominations which dont or wont adapt face the prospect of extinction.

So each individual panopticon can play an essential part in the wellbeing of the whole global  faith community to a degree which was undreamed of only a few years ago. Viral imaginative synergy in open networks is here to stay; perhaps this is one way in which the Holy Spirit is bringing a new VISION to birth.

(With apologies for the contrived acronym.)


  1. I love the sculpture, and your thoughts are challenging, like you I benefit from participation in web 2.0 faith and have gained a lot from being able to connect with a global community. How though do we conquer the fear factor that comes with this when denominations are concerned? Not only do we need to get past the " not invented here" mentality, but also the fear of being plagarised and loosing our identity.

    I think you have rightly captured the organic rise and fall and flux of this phenomenon ( with a great illustration), but still think that denominationally there are barriers to overcome...

    ... as for the acronym... it worked so hey!

  2. Wow!

    Something else amazing from you- you should consider being a chair of District of something......

    Biggest thing that is hitting me right now re: Christianity/faith, is a summary 'You are blessed beyond measure- now go and bless freely' our model of governance needs to be marked by loose networks and constantly going beyond...

    Do you think we can manage it though?

  3. Hi Sally and Graham, as ever its good to read your thoughts. I recognise the real difficulties which you highlight when we come down to the denominational practicalities of being open in this way. I am confident that we can do it, and you two are just the sort of cutting edge change leaders who will turn the trickle into a tide and bring this dream into being. Our primary loyalty is to God who constantly calls the church into being for mission; our collective task is to take our distinctive charisms and identity (our missional dna) as being an evolving gift from God rather than set for ever in the 18th century, and express it afresh.