The sociologist Erving Goffman, in 1957, coined the term “total institution” to describe the way certain residential institutions, like asylums, prisons, hospitals, and schools, induce those who live in them—inmates and patients, as well as wardens and nurses—to behave in similar ways.
A total institution is a place of work and residence where a great number of similarly situated people, cut off from the wider community for a considerable time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life
Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates is a 1961 book by sociologist Erving Goffman. . . . Based on his participant observation field work, the book details Goffman's theory of the "total institution" (principally in the example he gives, as the title of the book indicates, mental institutions) and the process by which it takes efforts to maintain predictable and regular behavior on the part of both "guard" and "captor," suggesting that many of the features of such institutions serve the ritual function of ensuring that both classes of people know their function and social role, in other words of "institutionalizing" them.
It occurs to me that Jonathan Franzen was trying (not really successfully) to describe something like this, where he depicts the Internet as “totalitarian.” As a number of reviewers, including the LA Review of Books’ Urmila Seshagiri, have pointed out,
Purity’s governing analogy styles the internet as a “New Regime” whose reigning minds are falsely benign avatars of East German despots:
The old Republic had certainly excelled at surveillance and parades, but the essence of its totalitarianism had been more everyday and subtle. You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large and small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet. Its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence.
Of course “totalitarian” and “total institution” are not the same thing. The point of using the term “total institution” is that the school, employer, hospital sets itself up as an entire world, when in fact it is not the entire world; and it controls entrance to and exit from itself on its own terms. A society, on the other hand, actually is the entire world for the people who live in it; they can join or leave institutions within that society as they wish, and aren’t constrained to follow one set of rules to the exclusion of all others; they can also leave the society itself, by going elsewhere or by exercising their right to privacy for some amount of time. All these things are the opposite of the total institution.
The Internet is not a total institution because it’s an institution that operates within a free society, and because it touches on only part of people’s lives. It’s not totalitarian for the same reason. It sounds like Purity is trying, and failing, to make a comparison between “totalitarianism” (the East Germany that’s the setting for part of the novel) and a “total institution” (its putative analysis of the Internet), in order to make a point that society today is more all-encompassing and nearly totalitarian than at any time in the past—that the way we live now is close enough to the way people lived under Communism that we ought to take a good hard look at ourselves, and throw some of what we’ve been persuaded is essential out the window—and that if we do, we can become more free. Put that way it sounds ridiculous. But if he’d said only the more milder, “society makes claims on us, and the Internet too, and it would do us good to think about this some,” the impact would be less, and it would be pretty unobjectionable.
UPDATE: Fixed editing errors: missing date in first paragraph, wrong indent that didn't separate out the quotation from the review by Seshagiri as its own paragraph.