Surveillance pervades modern society. From CCTV cameras to cellphones to digital tracking, it can be impossible to tell whether someone is watching. This monitoring almost certainly affects our behavior, and theories about exactly how it does have a long history, tracing back to a model of the ideal prison: the Panopticon.

Bentham and the Panopticon as Prison

A painting of Jeremy Bentham, creator of the panopticon. Bentham is an older balding white man with an oval face, dark eyes, and white hair down to his shoulders.
Jeremy Bentham, creator of the panopticon. Credit: By Henry William Pickersgill (died 1875), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6584649

The panopticon sprang from the philosophy of its creator. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, best known as the central figure of utilitarianism. This ideology draws on the combination of natural science methods with the social sciences and aims to guide action and public policy toward “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Its guiding principles, as outlined in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) are pain and pleasure: the goal of all individuals, and therefore the most important goal of government, is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Bentham went so far as to create a “felicific calculus” intended to calculate maximal happiness, although even his followers agreed it isn’t especially usable.

One of utilitarianism’s functional results is the belief that punishment should exist only to discourage a greater evil, e.g. to disincentivize selfish acts that decrease the community’s overall happiness. The existing British criminal code, later termed the “Bloody Code,” went far beyond this, ascribing capital punishment to even minor crimes. Bentham decided that it was time to reform this system, and one of his biggest ideas was to completely redefine imprisonment.

Panopticon: or, the Inspection House, published in 1791, laid out Bentham’s design for a new kind of prison. Panopticon opens with the design’s lofty goals: “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burdens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the Poor Laws not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!” This “simple idea” was drawn from the work of Bentham’s brother, Samuel, in Russia. Samuel had developed the concept of “central inspection” for factory work, wherein as few as one inspector keeps constant watch over an entire factory floor from a central office.

The original panopticon design by Jeremy Bentham. The design is a black on white blueprint of a round building with a quarter section taken out to show the interior, including 6 floors of cells along the outer ring. Below this is a plan view of half the building.
The original panopticon design by Jeremy Bentham. Credit: The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3130497

Jeremy brought this idea to prisons, with the goal of providing safety, confinement, forced labor, and education to prisoners at minimum cost. To do this, Bentham suggests that, ideally, every prisoner should be under constant supervision. Barring that, each one “should conceive himself to be so.” As such, the panopticon calls for a central guard tower or “inspector’s lodge” surrounded by a ring of cells, with their interiors entirely visible from the tower. Blinds and lighting would obscure guards in the tower so no prisoner could see exactly when they were under watch. If a prisoner believes they could get away with minor transgressions while guards aren’t watching, Bentham recommends recording multiple days of their actions before confronting them, proving to them and other inmates that the guards were observing them all along. Ultimately, the theory was to teach criminals to police their own behavior, such that they might return to society without causing further harm.

A key aspect of Bentham’s panopticon, above the specifics of architecture, is the hierarchy of power. An inspector would supervise guards from the central tower’s base, aiming to stop abusive practices. The inspector is appointed for life, subject to behavior, and lives in the prison with his family. The inspector also would have the power to choose the means of labor for prisoners, who would be paid for their work, and to profit from their labor. In return, and as a check on this power, the panopticon would be entirely open to public inspection, an ultimate answer to “who watches the watchers?”

Bentham believed that the panopticon approach could be applied to poor houses, factories, mental asylums, hospitals, schools, and anywhere else that observation could be useful. In fact, he later proposed an entire system of industrialized poor houses to care for – and profit off of – England’s paupers.

Bentham’s attempts to build a panopticon met little success. He bought land at Millbank in Central London, almost exhausting his inheritance, on the promise that the government would build his prison, but nothing came of it. The experience left him with little faith in politicians’ abilities to effect reform. Over time, Bentham became a radical democratic reformist, supporting such measures as women’s suffrage, the secret ballot, and equal electoral districts. He also applied the panopticon principle, in reverse, to politicians, with designs for audience chambers wherein ministers would sit at the center, totally exposed to the ever-watching public.

The Presidio Modelo in Cuba. The Presidio is a round building in a state of disrepair. The outer ring appears to consist of rectangular open windows, while a guard tower stands in the center.
The Presidio Modelo in Cuba. Note the panopticon guard tower. Credit: By I, Friman, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2410607

A handful of prisons would later be built on the panopticon principle, with varying effect. A few notable examples include the F House at Stateville Correctional Center, Illinois, opened in 1925, and Cuba’s Presidio Modelo in 1926. At one time, Fidel Castro was an inmate, although by then it had become massively overcrowded. F House closed in 2016 after 90 years of operation, with Illinois state officials commenting, “its Panopticon layout is antiquated and created safety and operational hazards for both staff and offenders.” Ultimately, most prisons accepted only a few of Bentham’s ideas, and central inspection was only widely employed when new technology enabled it without a custom-built tower.

Sources and Further Reading:

Foucault and the Panopticon in Society

A black and white picture of Michel Foucault. Foucault is a bald man wearing glasses, a blazer, and a striped dress shirt. He is pictured laughing.
Michel Foucault. Credit: By Exeter Centre for Advanced International Studies Research Priorities, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23182200

The other major figure in the history of the panopticon is French philosopher, historian, and activist Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Foucault wrote about sexuality, ethics, and the relationship between power and knowledge. He was skeptical of popular views of history and the social sciences, and his work emphasized how these sciences serve to define and divide people. The use of “disciplines” to define normality and abnormality is core to his panopticon work. Although some criticize Foucault for failing to acknowledge aspects of history, culture, and the role of resistance, his work is highly influential to this day.

Foucault published Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1975. In it, he lays out a history of power through the lens of punishment. He surmises that the birth of the modern prison is the result of the movement from spectacle – such as mass executions – toward surveillance. This change is accompanied by the shift of punishment’s focus from a criminal’s body to their mind or soul.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes “Panopticism” as a key feature in power’s modern structure. In the process, he links the idea to a much earlier form of surveillance: quarantine in times of plague. Foucault describes a city under quarantine as “the utopia of the perfectly governed city.” Unlike the plague, however, panopticism doesn’t serve to solve an immediate emergency, but to strengthen disciplinary social forces.

Clearly, the panopticon is more than a building to Foucault. It serves as a “generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power.” The model serves as a mechanism to divide and control people, especially those deemed “abnormal,” through the ability “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Power in the panopticon works regardless of its actual exercise – the number of guards required in a theoretical panopticon is functionally zero. Foucault also emphasizes that, in Bentham’s panopticon, tyranny is impossible due to public inspection.

Foucault ultimately determines that the panopticon is a diagram of power in its ideal form, and that the pattern has spread throughout society. He notes that schools, factories, and hospitals all resemble prisons to some degree. These types of institutional panopticons are described as “discipline blockades:” enclosed spaces where disciplinary forces are in action. However, he also discusses “discipline mechanisms,” wherein panopticism and the disciplinary forces associated with it have spread throughout society, such as via the universal presence of police forces or religious institutions. This is in part due to a shift from their role as punishment to a more positive role in reinforcing productive behaviors. One example Foucault describes is military discipline: once intended only to prevent looting and other crimes, it now aims to create unity and enhance military strength under the watchful eye of commanding officers. Societal panopticism’s goal is to increase both docility and productivity of the individual in the most economical way possible. Foucault also describes it as creating mechanical inequality within the confines of legal inequality, through the differences between who is being watched, and who is doing the watching.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Panopticon Today

A police camera on a wooden telephone pole with a bright red light. The camera is a large whit box with an arm ending in an inverted glass dome. Behind the telephone pole a shotgun style home can be seen.
A bright flashing light on a bulky police camera in New Orleans serves to remind residents that the police could be watching at any time. Credit: NOLA.com

It’s obvious that today’s panopticon doesn’t rely on physical towers, or really architecture at all. Omnipresent CCTV, social media, and constant data gathering from all angles each play a role in the multifaceted modern panopticon. Television shows like Big Brother or Person of Interest have leveraged the normalization of surveillance into entertainment. For many, though, the constant state of scrutiny is far from comforting. In New Orleans, large police cameras dot corners in commercial areas, at intersections, and around residential “hotspots.” It’s not hard to see how the camera’s flashing lights serve to remind would-be criminals – and anyone else in their line of sight – of the “visible yet unverifiable” eyes of the police force.

Philosopher and psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff describes the modern panopticon as “surveillance capitalism” and the personal computer as an “information panopticon.” Governmental bodies like the National Security Agency collect as much digital information as they can get away with, analyzing it to find and profile potential terrorists well before any crime has been committed. At the same time, major corporations collect every bit of data they can to turn into personalized advertising. Any number of other groups might watch users at any given time: employers can collect their worker’s keystrokes to make sure they’re on task; parents might install applications to monitor their children’s cell phone usage; and social media opens whole swathes of our lives to anyone willing to do some digging. Anonymity online is an uphill battle at best.

When we design smart cities, such as Masdar or Songdo, we must consider the panopticon model. So much of what makes smart cities “smart” is the flow of big data. Every aspect of the community is monitored and recorded to help it run smoother. In the ideal smart city, algorithms do this work with little or no human intervention. When machines operate our cities, it becomes all the more important that we ask who is designing the machines and who their decisions affect most. There might not be a human in the tower anymore, but that doesn’t mean the smart panopticon can’t also be an instrument of power.

The Coronavirus pandemic ­– still very much ongoing at the time of writing – has thrown the appropriate level of surveillance into question. It’s easy to see parallels with Foucault’s quarantined “utopia of the perfectly governed city.” It’s one (still quite scary) thing when individuals are tracked only to monitor and slow the spread of a pandemic. It’s quite another when authoritarian powers use these technologies to violate citizen’s rights. Some governments may find it hard to give up their “perfectly governed cit[ies]” when the pandemic ends.

Perhaps the biggest single issue with the modern-day panopticon is that it has lost the thing that both Bentham and Foucault singled out as preventing tyranny: the public eye. So much of digital surveillance is secret or hidden behind layers of algorithms and legalese, and no one is able to watch the watchers.

Jeremy Bentham's "Auto-Icon" at The Student Centre in University College London. The Icon appears to be a model of a man wearing old fashioned clothes, including gloves and a hat. He is sitting on a wooden chair with a cane set between his legs. The model is inside a glass case.
Jeremy Bentham’s “Auto-Icon” at The Student Centre in University College London. Credit: By Philip Stevens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87504162

As a closing note, it is worth observing that Jeremy Bentham plays a more direct role in the modern panopticon than one might expect. In accordance with his wishes, Bentham’s skeleton was preserved with his own clothes and a wax head, and put on display as an “auto-icon” at University College London. From 2015 to 2016, the PanoptiCam project set a webcam above the body. The webcam live-streamed to the UCL website, and its daily time lapses are still available here. Meanwhile, the project was also testing surveillance algorithms to count museum visitors, technology that defines modern observation culture.

Sources and Further Reading:

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