How is power imagined in relation to digital media? – Zoe Head

Zoe Head is a recent Drama and English Literature graduate from University of Birmingham. She is interested in future technologies and their ethical, philosophical and social implications and is an adamant fan of dystopian fiction.  

How is power imagined in relation to digital media?

At the beginning of her documentary, Citizenfour, Laura Poitras reads an encrypted message from an anonymous source, over footage of the construction of  the NSA’s (National Security Agency) largest repository for intercepted communications, based in Utah. She recites, ‘We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man’.[1] The concept of power exerted through constant and indiscriminate surveillance lies at the heart of Citizenfour. This power derives  from ‘an enhanced ability to delve in between the layers of hardware and software from which cyberspace is constructed’;[2] reconfiguring civilians into ‘virtual data doubles’.[3] Citizenfour follows Edward Snowden who, in 2013, made the controversial decision to disclose classified documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance programs and cooperations with the world’s leading telecommunications services to spy on American citizens. This disclosure proved that James Clapper, NSA director had committed perjury when questioned on the matter in court:

‘So, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’
‘No, sir.’
‘It does not?’
‘Not wittingly.[4]

Snowden’s actions sparked a historic debate over the ethics of mass surveillance, government secrecy and the balance between national security and personal information privacy.

When she was contacted by Snowden under the alias ‘Citizenfour’,Laura Poitras  was amid a project: a trilogy of documentaries on post 9/11 America, the war on terror and the consequences for individuals around the globe.[5] In 2006, she was placed on a watch list after releasing a film about the Iraq war and was consequently routinely intercepted, held against her will at border controls and threatened with having  her footage and recording equipment confiscated. In an effort to expose arbitrary abuses of power, such as these, and continue producing the final film of her trilogy, Poitras committed to raising her awareness of digital security; learning methods of encryption to prevent interception of her communications. Snowden makes it clear that this dedication to documenting  the effects of post 9/11 hierarchies of power is why he endeavoured to contact her, ‘this is a story few but you can tell’..[6] As William Binney, ex-US intelligence official turned whistle-blower, asserts ‘9/11 happened, and it must have been right after, a few days, no more than a week…that they decided to begin actively spying on everyone in this country’.[7]

Power is imagined in Citizenfour as corporate control of digital networks by means of mass surveillance systems administered by the US government to invade the privacy and hence violate the rights of millions of citizens. This essay will support this claim by positioning Foucault’s theory of panopticism[8] alongside Wendy Chun’s concept of ‘visibility’ online to act as theoretical framework when approaching Poitras’ portrayal of power.[9]  As means of an interpretive structure I will be referring to Bill Nichol’s Representing Reality to investigate how Poitras uses form and a variety of stylistic and narrative techniques to examine discourses of power within the text.

In Discipline and Punishment, Foucault introduces the idea of ubiquitous surveillance as a ‘mechanism of observation’ possessing ‘the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour’ insinuating ‘knowledge follows the advances of power’.[10] The latter statement echoes the Information Awareness Office’s logo; an eye emitting a ray of light enveloping the globe, see Fig. 1, which increasingly seems more dystopian in a context of global scrutiny.[11] Originally, the Panopticon was a circular institutional building designed by Jeremy Bentham, enabling all inmates to be observed constantly, without any insight themselves as to when and by whom, ‘he is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication’.[12] What is significant about this statement is the observed is reduced to an ‘object’ with no agency, ‘unable to meaningfully oppose’[13] as Snowden states, on whether their ‘behaviour’ is being ‘penetrated’ ‘for the constraints of power’.[14] The observational tower represents a technology of control, dominion and subordination. The observed are  perpetually ‘in the innate state of conscious and permanent visibility assuring the autonomic function of power’[15] thus forced to modify and restrict their behaviour appropriately, again echoed through Snowden’s words, ‘the curtailment of intellectual freedom’.[16] The key term here is ‘visibility’ and as Hier and Greenberg argue ‘visibility is as much a political field as it is an aesthetic perception’ further endorsing how discourses of power are embedded in a panoptic structure.[17]

fig 1.jpg
Fig. 1

In a digitalised era of visible online personal data, the idea of panopticism gains prominence due to ‘technological enlargement of the field of perceptual control’ and ‘the erasure of distance in the speed of electronic information.’ [18]  This pushes ‘the limits of surveillance’ and the horizons of scope broaden, which hauntingly echoes through Poitras’ delicate voice over in Citizenfour, ‘whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not’.[19]

Soshanna Zuboff refers to this as the ‘information panopticon’; the utility of information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms.[20] This is further exemplified in Snowden’s encrypted messages, ‘every border you cross, every purchase you make…every site you visit, subject line you type…is in the hands of a system’.[21] The prolonged list of invasions of privacy builds up momentum as each is named. The choice Poitras to speak aloud, rather than allowing the viewer to read off the screen highlights her and Snowden’s unusual start to their relationship and enables us to imagine her fervently reading and rereading them to herself. The development to forcing the audience to read his encrypted messages later, denotes an increased risk of speaking aloud.

The voice-over plays over the opening image; illuminated dashes of white light travelling across the centre of a black empty frame, see Fig. 2, reminiscent of digital code or cryptic signifiers relaying data to another network in dialogue. The dashes disappear at the end of an unknown boundary, symbolic of data morsels being swallowed into the dark depths of a bottomless cyberspace. When we watch Citizenfour in terms of Foucault’s panopticon, it is clear Poitras positions the NSA’s voyeurism as inflicting a ‘cruel, ingenious cage’ on the citizens of America,[22]  further depicting the ‘mechanism of power’ visibility of the internet grants them.[23]

fig 2.jpg
Fig. 2

Chun reinforces the concept of an ‘information panopticon’ in Freedom and Control, declaring  we ‘are coded and circulated numerically, invisibly and nonvolitionally’ thus supporting the notion of the threat of an invisible and anonymous power, ‘dark machine of control’.[24] She contends that power currently ‘operates through the coupling of control and freedom’.[25] Initially, the internet was perceived as an empowering tool of liberty, free speech and democracy, or ‘networked individualism’ that was ‘free and unrestrained’.[26] We are able to imagine this presence of agency through the protection anonymity grants identity.  This is alluded to in Citizenfour when Snowden gestures to a cloth he routinely uses to conceal his face when typing passwords, ‘Could you pass my magic mantle of power?’ implying his anonymity equates to a gaining of authority.[27] Coleman likewise concurs with ‘the power of a mask as a potential force to unmask corruption, hypocrisy, and state and corporate secrecy’, referring to an emergence of political resistance whose anonymity matches the state it opposes.[28]

However, Chun explains, digital networks grant only the control systems complete invisibility, ‘we no longer experience the visible yet unverifiable gaze but a network of visualisable digital control.’ Effectively, we are positioned ‘behind, not in front of, the window’.[29] She uses the analogy of a coin to illustrate the internet as  ‘an unfailing surveillance device’ being situated as the ‘obverse’ to an ‘agency-enhancing marketplace’ rather than the ‘opposite’.[30] Thus constituting the paradigm allowing control and freedom to operate side by side. In Citizenfour, Snowden rejects the existence of this problematic relationship insisting they should not coexist harmoniously. The panoptic powers of visibility induce ‘the curtailment of my intellectual freedom’,[31] or in Hier and Greenberg’s words, ‘threaten democratic socialism and human freedom’.[32] This disjunctive relationship is echoed in stylistic choices in Citizenfour.

fig 3

Poitras adopts the observational mode which is characterised by presenting an unmediated access to the world from the position of an ideal observer in historical reality.[33] The mode typically displays an ‘exhaustive depiction of the everyday’ placing the documentary in the regime of the conventional and familiar, further enhancing an authentic representation and sense of privileged access.[34] This is particularly discernible in the sequence preceding Snowden’s departure from the hotel room after revealing his identity to the press. After the fading out ‘Monday’ to black, a word that feels  especially banal in this context, Poitras cuts to a wide exterior shot of a busy shopping street in Hong Kong broadcasting Snowden’s face expanded to billboard size, see Fig. 3. Concomitant with the image is the sound of haunting mechanical ticking accelerating, alluding to, and purporting a similar effect of, the suspense of a bomb about to blow and time dissipating – suggesting his time is up.. Poitras then cuts to the safety and familiarity of the hotel room, where news reports repeatedly mentioning Snowden are background diegetic noise. The camera follows Snowden attempting to disguise himself by shaving, adding excess gel to his hair and exchanging his glasses for contact lenses. Here, Poitras allows the camera’s gaze to observe Snowden in a seemingly mundane rhythm of everyday life with an odd serenity and calmness. The juxtaposition of public and private figure, highlighted with the pan from Snowden on the television to in the bathroom, depicts him as not solely a historical icon but ‘a protagonist who represents ‘us’ to a large extent’.[35] Capturing his degree of subjectivity in this banal routine; the self-reflexive gaze in the mirror at his now shaven and more innocent looking face, see Fig. 4, and his trivial worry of whether a green umbrella will attract unwanted attention, allows us access to his ‘interior dimensionality’ thus positioning the audience in a state of ‘empathetic identification’.[36] Conversely, Packer likens this image of Snowden to ‘a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice’ which would correspond with the notion of a ticking time bomb.[37]

fig 4.jpg
Fig. 4

Furthermore, the fixity of the camera in spatial and temporal continuity creates present tense representation inducing the audience’s engagement with the immediate, intimate and personal trajectory Snowden embarks upon. The combination of confined space in the hotel room and wide angle close, positing axiographic rapport between filmmaker and subject, intensifies the perception of psychological realism and privileged access.[38]

Poitras’ self-confessed objective in filmmaking is to observe the human predicament in an unobtrusive manner, ‘people in real time, confronting life decisions’. She disregards retrospective interviews as ‘people create a narrative for themselves’ therefore ‘the risk and decision making are ripped from the story-telling’.[39] In the second film in her trilogy, The Oath, Poitras applies the same stylistic technique observing Abu Jandal as the subject, a charismatic ex-jihadi who allegedly knew the 9/11 hijackers.[40] In between long unblinking takes of confessions of a relationship with Osama Bin Laden, the film retains the mundanities of his daily life, such as teaching his children good manners and eating dinner with them, ‘Habeeb, would you like hot sauce?’.[41] The seemingly banal moments are important in creating a degree of subjectivity and a contradictory perspective of their realities, privileging the human idiosyncrasies.

This choice of form supports the establishment of ‘the Other’ in the mechanism of narrative formulating power hierarchies. Nichols affirms ‘the Other, as a projection and construct, functions as a threat or obstacle to the hero in pursuit of a goal’.[42] In Citizenfour ‘the Other’ is the NSA’s panoptic eyes of surveillance. The ‘hero’ incarnate is Snowden, and his  ‘goal’ is to  expose the immoralities of the NSA. Nichols proposes ‘the Other embodies evil […] excess greed [and] the nefarious and the destructive’.[43] ‘Greed’ is certainly implied in the amount of data they intercept, ‘every call you dial…’ etc,[44] and the magnitude of citizens under scrutiny, ‘there are 1.2 million people on various stages of their watch list’, see Fig. 5. Their ‘nefarious’ and sinful nature is exposed by Snowden’s disclosures of their perversions of privacy, ‘we could watch drone videos from our desktops…following somebody’s house for hours and hours’.[45] Nichols emphasises when documentary portrays ‘the Other’ the ‘separation of subject and object creates the prerequisite for power’.[46] This estrangement is known as the fishbowl effect. Poitras neglects to include the perspective of NSA thus creating distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’.[47] This distance forges strangeness, distortion and apprehension of ‘the Other’, just as a fishbowl distorts perception of an object.

fig 5.jpg
Fig. 5

This narrative technique is enforced in wide exterior shots of NSA data interception centres, see Fig. 5, positioned in juxtaposition with previous close-ups registering subjects’ facial expressions and interiority. The wide angle shot from an outlying distance is mimetic of the cold, hard and clinical gaze of surveillance. It signifies the prospect of role-reversal, a diversion of attention toward the eyes ‘in front of’ not ‘behind’ the ‘window’.[48] In addition, the deviation from emotive human faces to solid manufactured alien-esque structures, enhances the distortion of the NSA into the dystopian ‘monstrous’ ‘Other’.[49] The presentation of the NSA as concrete constructions depicts mass surveillance as not only high speed penetrative ephemeral networks and meta-data but as structures wedged into the physical landscape, hiding away in remote locations.

fig 6.jpg

Poitras employs the clinical or professional gaze, which ‘testifies to a special form of empowerment’, to document the events unfolding.[50] This choice privileges personal detachment and journalistic responsibility  to forego any emotional bias or overt implication of argument. However, there is a palpable strain exhibited between the professional and the humane gaze, characterized typically by ‘disrupting the fixed, mechanical recording process to emphasize the human agency behind the camera’.[51] In Citizenfour, Poitras operates as an off-screen presence and active agent in the narrative, her own personal story acting as prologue to Snowden’s revelations. Whilst only witnessing her reflection in the mirror momentarily thus not ‘disrupting’ the action, her emotional involvement infiltrates. Often we hear her voice in hotel scenes, she asks Snowden, ‘How do you feel? during the ‘being readied for sacrifice’ sequence and ‘Are you okay?’ over encrypted message, hinting at her fundamental human warmth, discordant with the impartial and detached impression the clinical gaze usually purports.[52] This tinge of humanity succeeds in associating her perspective with the powerless majority, US citizens, in hierarchical relations of surveillance, dominance and control, thus reinforcing the dichotomy of ‘us’ against ‘them’. Her choices of final imagery in the film emulates this effort.

In Moscow, Poitras films Snowden, now seeking asylum, and his long term partner preparing dinner through the window of their home, see Fig. 7. The tension between professional and humane gaze is evident. The observation through the window demonstrates their ongoing vulnerability to surveillance whilst, simultaneously, witnessing their intimate proximity in a domestic routine alludes to Poitras’ human understanding of the importance of personal connections when ‘confronting life decisions’.[53] Poitras’ frame is sensitive to this affinity.

fig 7.jpg

The final scene depicts  an environment of oppression and prohibition of free speech. Greenwald, Guardian journalist, and Snowden are driven to condensing confidential communication to scribbling notes on paper and ripping them up imminently to avoid detection. In broken conversation, it is revealed all American drone strikes are funnelled through the Ramstein US Air Force base. The final shot consists of crumpled shreds of evidence being discarded, with one final legible scribbled word ‘POTUS’. The shred came from a sketch Greenwald previously drew, claiming ‘this is the decision-making chart’, affirming the chain of command leads to President Obama, who signs off all targeted drone killing.[54] This poignant moment is representative of ongoing hierarchies of power and control operating panoptically, invisibly and anonymously, presenting the individual who procures a superior position of influence complying with immorality and illegality of the NSA’s actions. Poitras uses this closing insight, accompanied by a rousing and compelling soundtrack, to support her argument that surveillance is increasingly becoming an abuse of power rather than ensuring citizen security and safety, and is a corruption far from resolution.

This essay has examined the ways power functions panoptically in Citizenfour by invasive and undisclosed mechanisms of observation purporting absolute visibility of those with internet connection. Chun asserts the information panopticon enforces a coexisting, but juxtaposing, relationship between control and freedom, citizens are simultaneously protected and vulnerable. Poitras employs the observational mode, subjectivity identification, establishment of ‘the Other’ and a strain between the clinical and humane gaze to implicitly present her opinions on government abuses of cyberpower. As UK Foreign Secretary William Hague asserts ‘When we talk about defending ourselves against cyber threats, we also mean the threat against individual rights to freedom of expression that is posed by states blocking Internet communications. The free flow of ideas and information is an essential underpinning of liberty’, this is ironic  given GCHQ’s own spying programs.[55] Poitras laments that these fundamental human rights are progressively re-negotiated, and causes us to reexamine our positions.


[1] Laura Poitras, dir., Citizenfour (Praxis Films, 2014), 09:46- 09:50

[2]  David J Betz and Tim Stevens. Cyberspace and the State: Toward a Strategy for Cyber-power (Routledge, 2011)

[3] Sean P. Hier, and Josh Greenberg. Surveillance: Power, Problems, and Politics (UBC Press, 2010) p.17

[4] Citizenfour, 18:09-18:24

[5] Peter Maass, ‘How Laura Poitras helped Snowden spill his secrets’, The New York Times, 13th August 2013. <> [accessed 28 March 2017]

[6] Citizenfour, 00:04:53

[7] Ibid, 00:06:53

[8] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012), 195-231.

[9] Wendy Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT Press, 2008), 1-31.

[10] Foucault, p197

[11] Wendy Chun, ‘Invisibly Visible, Visibly Invisible’ from Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (MIT Press, 2011), 15-18.

[12] Ibid, p199

[13] Citizenfour, 00:23:35

[14] Foucault, p199

[15] Ibid, p201

[16] Citizenfour, 00:26:50

[17] Hier and Greenberg, p16

[18] Bets and Stevens, p48

[19] Citizenfour, 00:04:42

[20] Shoshana Zuboff, In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power (Basic Books, 1988).

[21] Citizenfour, 00:04:27

[22] Foucault, p213

[23] Ibid, p197

[24] Chun, Freedom and Control, p6

[25] Ibid

[26] Citizenfour, 00:26:18

[27] Ibid, 00:37:08

[28] Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker. Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Verso Books, 2014).

[29] Chun, p14

[30] Ibid, p15

[31] Citizenfour, 00:26:18

[32] Hier and Greenberg, p26

[33] Nichols, Bill, Representing Reality (Indiana University Press, 1991), p38.

[34] Ibid

[35] Nichols, p207

[36] Ibid, p120

[37] George Packer, ‘The holder of secrets: Laura Poitras’s closeup view of Edward Snowden’ New Yorker, 20th October 2014. <> [accessed 29 March 2017]

[38] Nichols, p93

[39] Laura Poitras, and others, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance (Yale University Press, 2016)

[40] The Oath, Laura Poitras dir.,(Zeitgeist Films, 2010)

[41] Ibid, 00:23:34

[42] Nichols, p204

[43] Ibid

[44] See note 10

[45] Citizenfour, 00:24:09

[46] Nichols, p207

[47] Nichols,p207

[48] Chun, p14

[49] Nichols, p206

[50] Ibid, p87

[51] Ibid, p86

[52] Citizenfour, 01:11:31

[53] Poitras, p37

[54] Citizenfour, 01:47:57

[55] Quoted in Hier and Greenberg, p136

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