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The panopticon is a conceptual prison that was created by Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The main idea of this prison was that the guards would be able to view and monitor all prisoner activity from one location. In this prison, a tower was placed in the center and the cells were built around it. From the tower, the guards could see into every room and monitor their activity, but the inmates were unable to see into the tower. The inmates were unable to see how many guards were in the tower and if they were being watched. “Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” (Foucault 201). With this in mind, it is assumed that the prisoners would always be on their best behaviour because they could never be sure if they were being watched. Due to this permanent visibility the prisoners would regulate their own behavior, the physical presence of guards and the threat of actual punishment would be obsolete. As result, power becomes more effective and economic. The number of prisoners who can be controlled can increase, while the the number of guards needed to operate the prison decreases. “The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tover, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is a guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences…”. With this type of complete isolation the prisoners would be under absolute control of the guards.
In Foucault’s book he uses the panopticon to describe how modern day institutions and society in general use separation and the threat of surveillance to control its citizens. “In each of its applications, it makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power. It does this in several ways: because it can reduce the number of those who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised. Because it is possible to intervene at any moment and because the constant pressure acts even before the offences, mistakes or crimes have been committed. Because, in these conditions, its strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise, it constitutes a mechanism whose effects follow from one another. Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives “power of mind over mind”. This is evident in the way most societies have always been structured. The “ruling” class is a small minority and someone convinces the rest of society to fall in line and live the way they have deemed appropriate. This is not done through the threat of violence and constant monitoring. “The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
In our society there obviously is not a tower that monitors our behavior, it is done so through things like visible cameras that can be found almost everywhere we go, the monitoring and tracking of people through their electronic devices and through online communication, like email and social media. Essentially, the watchtower at the center of the panopticon is the forerunner to surveillance cameras that can be found in every mode of public transportation and in every building. These cameras make no secret about their existence, they are always visible. We are never sure whether these cameras are on and if there is a person actually watching us. The presence of the camera alone however, is enough to make most people behave.
I want to quickly discuss industrial and post industrial societies. In an industrial society the focus is on the production of goods. Blue collar and manual labor type jobs are the norm. The workers have a practical knowledge, like plumbing or welding, that can be directly translated into real world work. There is not a focus on being creative or thinking outside of the box, and there is no reward for this ability. Everything is standard and regulated. There is a clear and visible breakdown of power, who is in charge and what is expected. The workers work and the managers oversee said work.
Fast forward to modern times, post-industrialism and we have a very different society. There was a shift from producing actual physical goods to a society that offers mainly services. There are more restaurants, agencies and the like, where more of the focus is placed on theoretical knowledge. There is an emphasis on creativity and innovation, with a higher demand for education and advanced degrees. With this comes a new set of ideals. There is a focus on being ambitious, self-motivated, self-organized and teamwork. None of which were necessary or desired in an industrial society.
How does this new society relate to the panopticon? Well, this self-regulation is a hallmark of our modern society. It has now become engrained into us that we have to take control and that we now have the power over our working lives. This power however, is imaginary. Just like the prisoners, workers who work in the creative branch, for example always have this subconscious feeling of being watched. Creative agencies in particular give off the illusion that the employees are free and independent, but they are not. With the addition of technology in the workplace, workers assume that there is some sort of software installed on the computers spying and tracking their activity. This is intended to keep them from browsing the internet and maintain productivity. The employees are not certain of this, but the assumption is there. Open-offices are another form of this control. Employees are always on display, they have no personal space or privacy. They are not only visible to their bosses, but to their fellow employees. This type of atmosphere ensures that the workers are always as productive as possible. Even with something that is supposed to be ideal, like freelancing or having a home office, is still dominated by the threat of constant surveillance. Here the panopticon is less direct and visible. Even from the comfort of their own space, there is this feeling and pressure to always be as productive as possible. Productivity guilt is a real feeling that I myself often battle. Specifically in the creative fields, this work-a-holic, hustle culture is idealised and promoted. When you are not working, drawing, designing, etc. there is this feeling of dread. This feeling that you are wasting time. This is a major principle of the panopticon. Power made profitable. If working is the only option made available, the only option promoted, then all we will do is work.
Even though we have shifted more to a service based society, we still of course have a large portion of the population that sell their labor. We have people who work in retail, factories and warehouses for example, where this panopticon is once again visible. We live in a capitalist society, so the powers that be have a vested in interest in making the highest amount of profit possible. This means more power is taken away from the workers as business owners think of more and more extreme ways to improve efficiency. Management must always be certain that the people are working. The giant watchtower is replaced with technology. Every movement of people who work in warehouses and factories, for example, is monitored. Cameras are scattered throughout the building, and there are electronic devices that calculate the speed or accuracy in which they work. There is no need for a manager to chase behind the employees, there is no need for a giant watchtower at the center of the plant. The panopticon is all around them and inescapable. “…With panopticism, there is a discipline mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come.” Management can not coerce the workers into working harder and longer with threats of violence. The punishment for not working effectively is unemployment. This constant threat of being replaced is often enough to maintain order within this capitalistic system.
In conclusion, the panopticon is a conceptual prison designed by Jeremy Bentham that Michel Foucault used to critique institutions of power and discipline. Since its conception, the panopticon is used as a metaphor to draw parallels between many other parts of our society. We are able to see how power is manifested, manipulated and changed based on the circumstances and how who sits on top of this theoretical tower can influence how we think and behave. This connection between being seen and being known and how surveillance is used as a form of control and oppression has been debated since the use of internet and technology took over our lives. Many argue that they are not opposed to this surveillance, because they are not doing anything wrong. This surveillance however stands in opposition to our freedom. The argument that, “I am not doing anything wrong,” is irrelevant. The threat of constant surveillance subconsciously and fundamentally changes how we interact with one another. That is what makes the panopticon so efficient, the successful ruling and controlling of people with a light and subtle touch.
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