The Digital Panopticon: Arweave and The Permaweb


The ephemeral and fragile nature of the Internet is why we created The Arweave. For the first time, we have the opportunity to safeguard our history, our stories and even our applications; to connect our past and our future in a permanent and immutable way. Imagine if we had access to every book, every document, and every article ever written — what would that do for our understanding? How would this help us to learn from the past to create a better future? Arweave gives us this opportunity.

Sam Williams, CEO and Founder, Arweave [22]

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is power and it can command obedience (maʿrifatu al-ʿilmi dīnun yadānu bihi). A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.

Nahj Al-Balagha, Saying 147.5 [1]

The aphorism “Knowledge is Power” goes back hundreds of years. Long before Sir Francis Bacon wrote “ipsa scientia potestas est” (‘knowledge itself is power’) in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597), Imam Ali (599–661 CE) told that “knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.” 

Bitcoin secures wealth in its distributed ledger. Ethereum protects contracts. Yet neither Bitcoin or Ethereum serve to secure human information. The written word. Knowledge.

The Panopticon

A panopticon is a prison with zero privacy. Its cells are arranged in a circle and are all inward facing, so that every inmate may view the others in their incarceration. 

Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, drawn by Willey Reveley in 1791. [3]

In the middle of the structure stands a guard-tower. A singe prison guard can surveil all the cells through one-way glass without the prisoners even knowing if he is watching or not.

The sociological and psychological effect is that prisoners feel they are observed at all times. The guard becomes an internalized omniscience, and the prisoners discipline themselves because someone could be watching.

Michel Foucault, a French intellectual and critic, expanded the idea of the panopticon into a symbol of social control that extends into everyday life for all citizens, not just those in the prison system (Foucault 1970). He argues that social citizens always internalize authority, which is one source of power for prevailing norms and institutions. A driver, for example, might stop at a red light even when there are no other cars or police present. Even though there are not necessarily any repercussions, the police are an internalized authority- people tend to obey laws because those rules become self-imposed. [2]

The panopticon may sound like fiction, but it is the creation of late 18th century English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. [3]

In 1813 the British government gave Bentham 23,000 pounds (£1.6M adjusted for inflation) to construct the building in New Delhi, India. The prison survives to this day


The internalization of authority under the gaze of an omnipresent observer is the single most profound trope of all dystopian literature. 

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four it is Big Brother, and in Zamyatin’s We [4], where all people live in glass buildings to permit mass surveillance, it is the One State.

Sauron’s Tower in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the all seeing eye, is the watchtower for a Middle Earth panopticon. 

Tolkien’s watercolor of Sauron [23]

Yet Bentham’s work is no fiction, and neither is the Internet. As readers will soon understand Tolkien’s may prove to be the most stirring metaphor for the digital panopticon.

The Digital Panopticon

When we talk about surveillance and technology we speak in a language that is borrowed from fiction … It [panopticon] is a particularly relevant metaphor, especially today, when technology has torn down the walls of the panopticon. What in Bentham’s time required a self-contained finite structure has now been released into the air. Panoptic architecture has now been embedded in the cameras trained on our public streets, the cellphones we carry with us, the computers in our homes that are privy to our most sensitive information.

Julian Sanchez, Cato Institute, in a talk from “Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance” [5]
Life in the Panopticon: Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance [5]

The Internet has become a digital panopticon. Modern “technology has torn down the walls” and panoptic architectures have been “released into the air”, as Julian Sanchez so eloquently states in the opening speech of the Thoughts on Freedom discussion panel (see above)

Whether the motive is marketing and advertising, or something more sinister, public and private sectors have colluded to gather people’s data. 

Initiatives like the defunkt Social Credit System [6] in China, and private data aggregators like InfoUSA [7] whose largest customer is the US government, have long since pointed to the intimate relations of governments and private industry in the digital space.

These days InfoUSA is less boastful about the sensitive data they collect, but pre-Snowden they were much less bashful.

A 2012 snapshot of provided by Wayback Machine

In recent times, Cambridge Analytica’s political party clients were gained victory in elections with the aid of psyops powered by Facebook data, and executed in part using the behemoth’s own architecture. [8]

The Guardian, “The Cambridge Analytica scandal changed the world — but it didn’t change Facebook” [24]

State-level surveillance, like the NSA’s PRISM [9], has been proven thanks to Snowden’s leaks. Although unconfirmed, security expert Steve Gibson of GRC posited a theory based in part on the testimony of an AT&T engineer, that the agency had installed listening rooms at major routing stations by splitting the fiber optic cables so as to store a perfect copy of all the data transmitted (hence the name Prism). [10]

That means that the videotapes produced by surveillance cameras will be convertible into a record of where particular people were when. Add in the ability of modern data processing to keep track of enormous amounts of information and we have the possibility of a world where large fractions of your doings are an open book to anyone with access to the appropriate records. Add to that the ability of computers to identify suspicious patterns of behavior, something already being experimented with in several places, and those in control of the technology cannot only look at everything but know where to look.

David D. Friedman, Surveillance Technology: The Universal Panopticon [11] Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925

Memory hole

A memory hole is any mechanism for the deliberate alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened. The concept was first popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Party’s Ministry of Truth systematically re-created all potentially embarrassing historical documents, in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing state propaganda. These changes were complete and undetectable.


Once again, now turning to censorship, we are given to use an idiom borrowed from fiction. Knowledge is trashed in the memory hole, that new truths may be written, old truths rewritten, and unpleasant truths absolved by deletion.

All the literature mentioned so far, and perhaps all dystopian fiction, include political indoctrination and censorship as the great enslavers of men.

In the real world things are not so different.

Google Transparency Report, Government requests to remove content 
Google Transparency Report, Reasons for Government requests to remove content [13]

Censorship will soon be a forgotten word.

Sam Williams


We think that we’re closing what Orwell called the memory hole so people can’t change what was said, so everyone can see it that way in the future without the possibility of redaction or censorship.

Sam Williams is CEO of Arweave, a company which is using blockchain and an innovative new consensus mechanism to store data on-chain and permanently (as in hundreds of years or more)

Quoting a recent Forbes article about Arweave [14]:

The number of permanently stored pieces of data is more than a million, while almost 200 applications have been developed on Arweave’s platform.

Multicoin Summit | Fall 2019 | Sam Williams, Arweave [15]


A social network app, email app , a Project Gutenberg-like eBook archive [16], finance apps, health apps, apps for development, gambling and games, stores, wallets, storage and, of course, media — 200 apps adding content to the permaweb.


Fighting Censorship

Arweave’s technology is already being used to combat censorship, as highlighted in reports by TechCrunch [18] and BusinessInsider [19]. The latter’s headline read An Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup has raised $22 million to fight coronavirus disinformation in China and the US.

WeiBlocked, an Arweave perma-app, crawls and stores data related to corona virus posts on social media platform Weibo. It checks back later to see if the content has been removed. Deleted posts are then flagged on its permaweb site

By censoring it, it puts it out of the control of the censor

Sam Williams

The Permaweb

Arweave’s Medium blog post What is Arweave? Explain Like I’m Five [20] is a good starting-point. Using a language borrowed from fiction once again, the post begins with an Orwellian quote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”, before continuing:

The original vision for the internet was a platform to communicate freely. As the power of what we created was realised it became a place where people could be monitored, controlled, and censored.

The Permaweb is like regular web except everything is timestamped and stored immutably.

Given all the trouble Bitcoin has had in the scaling debate and with the feasibility of on-chain scaling eschewed by many, including Blockstream (see my article, Satoshi on Scaling), how can Arweave scale to meet the needs of the Permaweb?

Begin exploring the Permaweb here.


So how does Arweave scale? Without going into heavy technical detail we may summize that this is achieved using three innovative technologies to create what is dubbed the blockweave.

  • Proof of Access: A novel consensus mechanism in which miners compete to provide as many replications of the data held in the system as they can. As the blockweave increases in size, the amount of electricity expended in the mining process decreases.
  • Wildfire: The self-organizing network topology that ensure miners are selfishly incentivized to share and store data as quickly as possible. Fast access to data is required to mine efficiently, and Wildfire improves sharing with lightning-fast speeds.
  • Blockshadows: Arweave needs a system with unlimited sized blocks. To achieve this transaction and block distribution are decoupled, which allows only a ‘shadow’ of the block to be moved around the system. The ‘shadow’ holds instructions on how to rebuild the block from its constituent transactions. The result is that large blocks can be distributed across the network in just a few kilobytes.

Cost of Storage

Arweave’s goal of storing something forever is predicated on the cost of storage declining in future. Even if it shouldn’t, your files will be stored for 200 years. However, as Moore’s Law dictates the cost of storage will exponentially decrease in cost, as it has over the last two decades, ensuring that your files will be saved forever.

The Arweave’s economic mechanism is similar to a traditional economic endowment structure. When a piece of data is added to the Arweave network, the user pays a ‘principle’ upfront, on which ‘interest’ in the form of storage purchasing power is accrued. Over time, interest on this one-time upfront payment is given to those that offer hard drive space so that they can profit from their storage contributions. By using extremely conservative estimates for storage pricing, Arweave ensures the long-term viability of the network’s endowment.



Knowledge is Power. 

“Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.”

By USGov-Military — from (Currently down, see archived page)

Arweave is building a digital Library of Alexandria, so that those who walk in our footsteps will have knowledge and control over their past, that they might control their future.

Preserving human knowledge is the most important application of distributed ledger technology. Securing money pales in contrast. 

In these dire times of ‘misinformation’ and fear, Arweave’s Permaweb would as likely surprise and gratify Orwell, Huxley, Kafa or Zamyatin, as it will readers of The Daily Chain.

Arweave: connecting our past with our future [22]


[10] / transcript: 


To twitter user Erikcason, for using the term “digital panopticon” in a tweet, and helping to inspire this writing.

To Sam Williams and the Arweave Team for their vision.

Further Reading

Yellow Paper
2019 Permaweb Highlights

Further Viewing

Sam Williams CEO: Interview with Blockchain Brad

Useful Links


The Permaweb


I rushed to write this article and it is, for want of a better phrase, a labor of love. It was written without financial incentive. Having said that, may those who found it illuminating feel free to tip the following BTC, or Arweave, address. Thanks.



D. G. Altman
Fascinated by blockchain technology. Privacy advocate since forever with concerns over transparent ledgers in a cashless society. Coding in English (US) and Java at breakfast. Altcoin Maximalist

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