The Panopticons that Surround Us

The Panopticons that Surround Us

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” says Michel Foucault(1926-1984) in Discipline and Punish(Pantheon Books,1977).

The common element in the aforementioned institutions is that they resemble the model of a Panopticon (all-seeing). The panopticon was the brainchild of the utilitarian philosopher and theorist Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) in the late eighteenth century. According to him, its function was to invigorate industry, reform morals, preserve health and facilitate education. But what it means to us today is far more extended than the operations envisaged by this Benthamite invention: the concept of panopticism is entrenched in the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras that monitor our lives closely and the mobile phones we carry that can track down our movements. But there is more: Facebook and YouTube are also additional mechanisms that further the reality of panopticism.

In essence, the panopticon takes the shape of a platform where everyone is observed (and hence controlled) by an observer who is in turn hidden. As an effective prison, the model is depicted as a circular building with a watchtower at its centre; the cells of inmates are located all around the inner circle facing the watchtower. In turn, this tower is occupied by an observer. From this vantage point, the movements and activities of the inmates are scrutinized meticulously. The operation of panopticons is not restricted to exerting control and power over subjects: in Foucault’s words, they can also be used for “the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing.”

A study of the concept of panopticism reveals that it has undergone a few stages of transformation:

Stage I – The Original Panopticon

The French philosopher Michel Foucault explains that the panopticon is the most effective way of instilling order in a system where disorder is only second nature to Man. Thus, by dividing, segregating and confining individuals to classrooms, prison cells and hospital rooms, the panopticon secures a closer supervision. It also deters all forms of collusion that may potentially challenge the authority of the powerful. In essence, the function of panopticism is to homogenize and standardize, as this allows for more order and control. Failure of this type of homogenization is detectable through regular “Examinations”. These examinations are most obviously apparent when we speak of a classroom-panopticon, but are actually relevant even within the sphere of the hospital-panopticon and the prison-panopticon. Medical consultations in hospitals are in truth, examinations that segregate; and disciplinary measures imposed in prisons when inmates are disobedient, are ways to classify inmates according to how dangerous they are. The effect of the examination is that it enables further classifications to be made among subjects. Foucault describes these classifications as binary divisions and branding into such categories as mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal.

Stage II – Big Brother Syndrome

A relevant literary reference which exposed the evils of the panopticon is the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949) by George Orwell (1903-1950) where he depicts a society being controlled through advanced methods of surveillance. It is said that the advent of the television was what spurred Orwell to conjure up the idea that society could be manipulated through fear. This psychological phenomenon was termed “Big Brother syndrome”. In many prime parts of the world, the use of CCTV cameras is known to police the area and track down criminals and suspects. In fact it was this method that allowed the authorities to track down those responsible for the London bombings on 7th July 2005.

Stage III – Beyond Surveillance

Foucault described the panopticon as an “ingenious cage” and explained how it was a means to establish and organize power relations in society. He pointed out that the function of panopticism went beyond surveillance. In order to do this, he drew parallels between the regimented life of a prisoner and a student, and showed the true extent of manipulation that can exist inside a panopticon.

Stage IV- Human Tracking Systems and Electronic Media

We now speak of what Mark Poster (1941-2012) in The Second Media Age(Polity Press, 1995) describes as the “super-panopticon”. This has been made possible by the emergence of online technology. The subject under observation, unlike Foucauldian discourse, is no longer aware of it. Therefore, self-determination is not in his hands: his identity, without his knowledge, may be reconstructed by those who filter information about him by retracing his online activities, and analyzing the way he uses his credit card. In fact, marketing tools today make use of this data, determine the preferences of the online user, and post only those advertisements that may interest him or her.

Nowadays Human tracking has added a new dimension to our life. Human tracking can take various forms but primarily it means where goods in transit are tracked or when locator tags are attached to vehicles or goods, so that the owners and conveyers may monitor movement. Dobson and Fisher accordingly coined the term “Geoslavery” in 2003 to mean the type of slavery whereby our whereabouts can be precisely tracked down. There have been discussions about a possible violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, but it is also clear that those who willingly subject themselves to such tracking during their employment, may not have recourse to this particular provision. Of course, the reverse side of human tracking is that it can allow relevant authorities to know the whereabouts of suspects and criminals. In a recent article in The Independent, dated 1st January 2015, Antonia Molloy reported that a suspected ISIS jihadist militant from New Zealand had accidentally tweeted his location from Syria. The suspect immediately deactivated his Twitter account following this incident. Despite the inevitable advantage of human tracking systems, the loss of our freedom must not be ignored. The advent of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), together with more updated methods of tracking such as Geographic Information systems (GIS) can be a serious threat to our freedom of movement.

For the purposes of this essay, I will confine myself to explaining the dynamics of the panopticon in the context of prisons and classrooms.

1) Prisons

The standard rules that are enshrined in a code of conduct governing a prison, in spirit and essence are not very different from other regular codes. The nonobservance of these rules automatically leads to the imposition of a set of punishments that vary according to the nature of the transgression. The detailed nature of these rules is important for the panopticon to work. Their objective is to discipline and normalize—or to fit in subjects into a rigid framework of what is deemed right by those in power (hence “the norm” conveys the idea of a standard, an ideal and thus the verb “to normalize”). The inmate who is conscious that he is under surveillance by an observer— usually positioned at the center of the panopticon-prison—automatically aligns his behavior to suit the rules ordained, out of fear of punishment. The original design of the panopticon recommended the use of venetian blinds around the quarters of the observer so that the inmates would not know of his exact whereabouts. Thus the latter’s attention or presence is not required at all times. In other words, the panopticon turns into a quasi self-regulating institution where rules of any kind can be made—even those imposing menial labour on inmates. In the end, the panopticon not only disciplines with the minimum resources possible, but uses its disciplining power to turn its rebellious subjects into useful units of production.

The painting in 1749 illustrated by N Andry “Orthopaedics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children” is an apt projection of what prisons seek to do to offenders: a tree that seems to be growing in a crooked direction is corrected and aligned with the support of a perfectly straight rod that is tied to it. In other words, the prison is a model which seeks to redress offenders. However, a wealth of literature on re-offenders, including novel discoveries about the encryptions of human DNA, reveals that the prison is more a centre for retribution than reform, for the harm inflicted on another. In other words, prisons are a means of doing justice to victims rather than reforming offenders. That is why Foucault calls the prison “a detestable solution, which one seems to be unable to do without.”


Whether prisons have a reformatory function or not, it is trite that they are structured very closely to the model of the panopticon. Unlike other manifestations of this Benthamite machinery in society, the extent of discipline imposed in prisons is the harshest. This is because in this environment, every aspect of the subject’s well-being is dependent on the rules laid down by the institution since it takes over controlling his liberty of movement.

It is important that the isolation of the inmate be not be total otherwise concerns about the medical condition of the subject could arise. This extent of isolation is only imposed in extreme cases. In the panopticon-prison, isolation of the inmate must be sufficient so that horizontal communication is kept at a minimum. This is done so as to prevent plots or complicities against the power-holders. Vertical communication—which is encouraged—would be a constant reminder of the existence of a powerful hierarchy. This is a prerequisite fundamental to panopticism. Additionally, the regulation of sleep hours, meal times, exercise, labour and prayer times would hopefully prepare the subject for a quicker and easier assimilation of the moral teachings of the institutions, be they of a religious nature or otherwise.

Foucault deems the prison to be the most egalitarian system of punishment because it robs the offender of a good which is common to all: freedom of movement. He also praises the precise determination of time of penitence by courts of justice which is calculated meticulously to vary proportionately with the magnitude of the crime committed.

Although Samuel Bentham was commissioned at least twice during his lifetime to implement the concept of the panopticon in penitentiaries, his proposal never materialized. The closest model to the one he had in mind is Prison Presidio Modelo—a penitentiary built in Cuba in 2005. This structure was slightly different from what Bentham had envisaged, in that inmates were invisible to the jailor when they were inside their cells—a problem which Bentham had worked really hard on to perfect.

2) Classrooms

It was Jeremy Bentham who had first suggested that students be arranged in semi-circles in classrooms. He claimed that this would have the effect of directing attention on the teacher who would then be able to monitor students more effectively. The architecture of amphitheatres that are in regular use today, is based on this idea.

For the Panopticon to function properly, there must be an asymmetry in the relationship shared between the observer and those being observed. Clearly, the relationship between teacher and student is not as symmetrical as in a contractual situation where contracting parties are normally supposed to enjoy equal bargaining power. The asymmetry in the classroom, or in a panopticon, establishes the hierarchy of power, or the master and slave relationship that should exist in this machinery of control. In a classroom’s typical setting where students face the teacher, small pockets of isolation are formed and enable the students to be under the watchful eye of the teacher. A donor-recipient relationship is formed where knowledge is transferred from one end to the other unreservedly. The confinement between four walls, the one-way transmission of knowledge and the hierarchy of power make the classroom a potentially dangerous institution where thinking can be aligned—or better still, programmed—to fit certain political, religious or other agendas.

Foucault also cites examples of how schools and classrooms have been used as a method of exercising control over the population at large. He comments on a particular period of time when unruly behavior would be detected in students, and arouse suspicion about the nature of parental education. Under the pretext of wanting to speak about a child’s behavior, the pastor or the teacher would be allowed into the home of the parent. This would give him an opportunity to ask questions about their way of life and whether this accorded with the standards imposed by the Church.

The Examination, which is used in educational establishments, is an important component of panopticism. It is described as a “normalizing gaze” and acts like a check on those who are not behaving within the parameters ordained by the system. In this system, there are broadly-speaking, only two possibilities: failure or success—another binary, and hence limited division. In case of success, the subject is praised and the system shows off its ability to norm-alize individuals; in case of failure, the subject suffers the obvious punishment of being judged and labeled, unless he decides to renew himself and conform. The Examination also monitors the progress of a particular field of knowledge being successfully (or otherwise) transmitted to a student. As it can be imagined, this was all the more important in schools that preached religious doctrines. In addition, the results of examinations act as a register or record of data that allows policy-makers to channel future technocrats into specific areas of expertise. In turn, this helps to optimize their utility in the development of the state and its policies.

Finally, a list of characteristics required for a panopticon to exist:

  1. An institution where individuals are isolated and are all observed without knowing who is observing them and when this is happening.
  2. A system that lets it known that there will be obvious punishments if certain standards of behavior are not conformed to.
  3. An examination which differentiates the normal from the abnormal and creates further divisions in society.

The evil inherent in the panopticon model of control and surveillance can be summed up to be the disappearance of The Individual in a sea of homogenized subjects. The Individual, as it is known, is the enemy of clinical sciences that seek to study their subjects through a common lens—the Individual poses a threat to this because he is the exception to the rule, and in turn immediately falsifies the catch-all formula meticulously derived by the scientist. On the other hand, the merit of the panopticon is that it establishes certain minimum standards for society, failing which stability and order could easily be under threat.

Today we do not only refer to the concept of panopticism. The phenomenon of the few observing the many has been reversed with online technologies. Reality shows, YouTube and Facebook, among others also enable the many to watch the few. This is what we refer to today, as the “synopticon”. In line with Foucault’s discourse on how the panopticon organizes and establishes power relations, it must be pointed that the synopticon has in several ways, reversed the gradient of power that exists in classical settings. Thus, public participation in policy-making and scrutiny of the government, are increasingly a practical reality.