Philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault warned of a future in which society is under constant surveillance. He used the "panopticon" -- a model prison watch system designed by 18th century political philosopher Jeremy Bentham -- as a symbol of modern societies that use surveillance as a form of disciplinary control.
That future may be here, 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 -- and his little helpers 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.
The doll is used in the home and in schools -- perched in a different location each day -- to encourage children to be on their best behavior so that they make it onto Santa's "nice" list. As the story goes, the elf has been sent from Santa ("the boss") as a special scout to help create his naughty and nice lists. When a family adopts the elf and gives him a name, the elf takes to his watchtower in various parts of the house and monitors the children's behavior. During the Christmas season, children are told that they must play by not only their parents' or teachers' rules, but also by the elf's rules.
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," Pinto wrote in a paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "In doing so, 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 play time and real life," Pinto wrote. "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 subjected to an authoritative elvish "gaze" -- "similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state," Pinto said.
Pinto points to a Huffington Post blog by Wendy Bradford, whose children "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, thus underscoring their awareness (and acceptance) of the surveillance apparatus."
Pinto is concerned that the Elf sets children up for the uncritical acceptance of surveillance structures. You know, sort of like their parents.
On the other hand, it could just be a toy.
Here's a short video on the subject from Pinto: