Elf on the Shelf
Philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault warned of a future in which society is under constant surveillance. He used the concept of the “panopticon” — a model prison watch system designed by 18th-century political philosopher Jeremy Bentham — which he pointed to as a symbol of the way modern societies use surveillance as a form of disciplinary control.
Fast forward and we find that future is here. Now, it confronts us in the form of a sprightly little elf telling children that they better not pout and they better not cry, because Santa is coming to town with a bag full of helpers, who are always watching. The Elf on the Shelf doll, based on the popular Elf on the Shelf children’s book, has become a full-blown cultural phenomenon in recent years, and Dr. Laura Pinto, a professor of digital education at the University of Ontario Institute Of Technology, for one, is concerned.
In Bentham’s panopticon, the inmates never knew exactly when the watchers were watching, so they were forced to behave at all times as if this were a possibility. Similarly, Pinto argues, though the children don’t know if their behavior will be caught by the elf, the possibility is always there, and therefore influences their behavior at all times.
“The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon,” wrote Pinto in a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives,” where she points out that it “contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects” If the children are the subjects, then Santa is Big Brother, and his elves are the Ministry of Truth. Pinto’s concern with the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is that the children see the surveillance, not as play, but instead accept it as real:
“Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between playtime and real life.” “Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus” The children are at all times subject to an authoritative “elvish gaze” — “similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state” (Pinto).
Pinto points to a Huffington Post blog by Wendy Bradford, whose writes about her children, who “insist on ringing the doorbell before entering their home to make sure that their Elf on the Shelf doll, ‘Chippey,’ is prepared for their arrival, which demonstrates their awareness (and acceptance) of the surveillance apparatus (Pinto). The social conditioning occasioned by Elf sets up children (who grow up to be college students) for the uncritical acceptance of surveillance structures. But who really knows? Elf could just be a toy. What do you think?
Huffington post article, featuring the work of Dr. Laura Pinto, professor of digital education at the University of Ontario Institute Of Technology.
How does social media function in ways that mimic the “watching eyes” of the elf? Does social media surveillance make you feel safe or suspicious? Does the idea that media companies are watching you/tracking you cause you to change and/or modulate your behavior?
Do you make use of surveillance technology anywhere in your home?
What do you think about the concept of privacy? Do you feel entitled to privacy? Are you willing to trade privacy rights for security?
How do you define social space in terms of “public” vs. “private?” For example, do you consider streets to be public? What about your email or information contained on your cell phone?