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What is a panopticon?

Imagined by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to design the ideal prison, the Panopticon (1780) is a single viewpoint allowing a guard to watch each prisoner without being seen in return.

The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen.

Bentham insists that the main feature resides in the fact that every inmate can be virtually observed at any moment, without the need for actual continuous monitoring—behaviour becomes self-disciplined, protocol, machine-like:

You will please to observe, that though perhaps it is the most important point, that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so …. This is material in all cases, that the inspector may have the satisfaction of knowing, that the discipline actually has the effect which it is designed to have …. I mean, the apparent omnipresence of the inspector (if divines will allow me the expression,) combined with the extreme facility of his real presence.

So, is the panopticon just “a simple idea in Architecture,” as Bentham has put it?

The idea of the panopticon should be reexamined today, on one hand because its realization has been made technically possible through the means of electronics1 (rather than optics); on the other hand, because it concerns society taken in its totality, well beyond the limits of an isolated institution.

Mass surveillance exercised by a few large private companies—whose structures of power have been rendered invisible despite their growing presence—represents an insidious and unfettered incarnation of this unprecedented form of power: a global, hungry, data-driven, corporate-centric panopticon in the 21st century.

  1. For example, following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations on the deployment of mass surveillance systems across the world. ↩︎