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Panopticism is a social theory originally developed by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book, Discipline and Punish.



A Panopticon is a circular building with an observation tower in the centre of an open space surrounded by an outer wall. This wall contains cells for occupants (for example, inmates in a prison). This design increases security by facilitating more effective surveillance. Residing within cells flooded with light, occupants are readily distinguishable and visible to a guard/official "invisibly" positioned in the central tower. Conversely, occupants are invisible to each other, with concrete walls dividing their cells.

Panopticism in Foucault's Discipline and Punish

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault builds on Jeremy Bentham's conceptualization of a panopticon as he elaborates upon the function of disciplinary mechanisms in the prison and illustrates the function of discipline as an apparatus of power. The "panoptic" style of architecture may be used in other institutions with surveillance needs, such as schools, factories or hospitals. The ever-visible inmate, Foucault suggests, is always the object of information, never a subject in communication. .[1] He adds that,

"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" (202-203).[2]

Foucault offers still another explanation for the type of "anonymous power" held by the operator of the central tower, suggesting that, "We have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way the surveillance is practiced."[3] By including the anonymous "public servant," as part of the built-in "architecture" of surveillance, the disciplinary mechanism of observation is decentered and its efficacy improved.

As hinted at by the architecture, this panoptic design can be used for any "population" that needs to be kept under observation or control, such as: prisoners, schoolchildren, medical patients or workers:

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; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. [1]
By individualizing the subjects and placing them in a state of constant visibility, the efficiency of the institution is maximized. Furthermore, it guarantees the function of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it. It is in this respect that the Panopticon functions automatically. Foucault goes on to explain that this design is also applicable for a laboratory. Its mechanisms of individualization and observation give it the capacity to run many experiments simultaneously. These qualities also give an authoritative figure the ability to penetrate men s behavior [1] without difficulty. This is all made possible through the ingenuity of the geometric architecture. In light of this fact Foucault compares jails, schools and factories in their structural similarities.

Examples in the late 20th and early 21st centuries

A central idea of Foucault s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of human populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the modernized and now, increasingly digitalized, world of information. Contemporary advancements in technology and surveillance techniques have perhaps made Foucault s theories all the more pertinent to any scrutiny of the relationship between the state and its population.

However, while on one hand, new technologies, such as CCTV or other surveillance cameras, have shown the continued utility of "panoptic" mechanisms in liberal democracies, it could also be argued that electronic surveillance technologies are unnecessary in the original "organic" or "geometric" disciplinary mechanisms as illustrated by Foucault. Foucault argues, for instance, that Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon provides us with a model in which a self-disciplined society has been able to develop. These apparatuses of behavior control are essential if we are to govern ourselves, without the constant surveillance and intervention by an "agency" in every aspect of our lives. The Canadian historian Robert Gellately has observed, for instance, that because of the widespread willingness of Germans to inform on each other to the Gestapo that Germany between 1933-45 was a prime example of Panopticism.[4]

Panoptic theory has other wide-ranging impacts for surveillance in the digital era as well. Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson, for instance, have hinted that technological surveillance "solutions" have a particularly "strong cultural allure" in the West.[5] Increasingly visible data, made accessible to organizations and individuals from new data-mining technologies, has led to the proliferation of dataveillance, which may be described as a mode of surveillance that aims to single out particular transactions through routine algorithmic production. In some cases, however, particularly in the case of mined credit card information, dataveillance has been documented to have led to a greater incidence of errors than past surveillance techniques.[6]

In one of the Eyes of New York ads introduced by MTA, close up photographs of several different sets of eyes are juxtaposed while underneath reads in bold print, There are 16 million eyes in the city. We re counting on all of them. This a continuation of the If You See Something, Say Something concept first launched in March 1993. MTA Director of Security William A. Morange says, It is impossible for the police departments to be everywhere and see everything. Our passengers extend our reach and-by sharing their information-make the system safer."[7]

According to the tenets of Foucault's panopticism, if discursive mechanisms can be effectively employed to control and/or modify the body of discussion within a particular space (usually to the benefit of a particular governing class or organization), then there is no longer any need for an "active agent" to display a more overtly coercive power (i.e., the threat of violence). Since the dawning of the Information Age, there exists a debate over whether these mechanisms are being refined or accelerated, or on the other hand, becoming increasingly redundant, due to new and rapid technological advancements.

Panopticism and Capitalism

Foucault also relates panopticism to capitalism:

"[The] peculiarity of the disciplines [elements of Panopticism] is that they try to define in relation to the multiplicities a tactics of power that fulfils three criteria: firstly, to obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost (economically, by the low expenditure it involves; politically, by its discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses); secondly, to bring the effects of this social power to their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible, without either failure or interval; thirdly, to link this 'economic' growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial or medical) within which it is exercised; in short, to increase both the docility and the utility of all elements of the system" (218).[2]

"If the economic take-off of the West began with the techniques that made possible the accumulation of capital, it might perhaps be said that the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a political take-off in relation to the traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power [i.e. torture, public executions, corporal punishment, etc. of the middle ages], which soon fell into disuse and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of subjection. In fact, the two processes - the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital - cannot be separated; it would not be possible to solve the problem of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital ... The growth of the capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, 'political anatomy', could be operated in the most diverse political r gimes, apparatuses or institutions" (220-221).[2]


The theoretical arguments in favour of rejecting the Foucauldian model Panopticon may be considered under five general headings:

1) Displacement of the Panoptical ideal by mechanisms of seduction,

2) Redundancy of the Panoptical impulse brought about by the evident durability of the self-surveillance functions which partly constitute the normal, socialized, Western subject, 3) Reduction in the number of occasions of any conceivable need for Panoptical surveillance on account of simulation, prediction and action before the fact, 4) Supplementation of the Panopticon by the Synopticon, 5) Failure of Panoptical control to produce reliably docile subjects.[8]

The first point concerns Zygmunt Bauman s argument that the leading principle of social order has moved from Panopticism to seduction. This argument is elaborated in his 1998 essay On postmodern uses of sex .[9]

The second argument concerns surveillance redundance, and it is increasingly relevant in the age of Facebook and online self-disclosure. Is the metaphor of a panopticon appropriate for voluntary surrender of privacy?

The third argument for post-Panopticism, concerning action before the fact, is articulated by William Bogard:

The figure of the Panopticon is already haunted by a parallel figure of simulation. Surveillance, we are told, is discreet, unobtrusive, camouflaged, unverifiable all elements of artifice designed into an architectural arrangement of spaces to produce real effects of discipline. Eventually this will lead, by its means of perfection, to the elimination of the Panopticon itself . . . surveillance as its own simulation. Now it is no longer a matter of the speed at which information is gained to defeat an enemy. . . . Now, one can simulate a space of control, project an indefinite number of courses of action, train for each possibility, and react immediately with pre-programmed responses to the actual course of events . . . with simulation, sight and foresight, actual and virtual begin to merge. . . . Increasingly the technological enlargement of the field of perceptual control, the erasure of distance in the speed of electronic information has pushed surveillance beyond the very limits of speed toward the purest forms of anticipation.[10]

This kind of anticipation is particularly evident in emergent surveillance technologies such as social network analysis.

The Synopicon concerns the surveillance of the few by the many.[11] Examples of this kind of surveillance may include the theatre, the Coliseum, and celebrity tabloid reporting. This reversal of the Panoptical polarity may have become so marked that it finally deconstructs the Panoptical metaphor altogether .[8]

Finally, the fifth point concerns the self-defeating nature of Panoptical regimes. The failure of surveillance states is illustrated by examples such as prison riots, asylum sub-cultures, ego survival in Gulag or concentration camp, [and] retribalization in the Balkans. [8]

In their 2007 article, Dobson and Fisher[12] lay out an alternative model of post-panopticism as they identify three panoptic models. Panopticism I refers to Jeremy Bentham s original conceptualization of the panopticon, and is it the model of panopticism that Foucault responds to in his 1975 Discipline and Punish. Panopticism II refers to an Orwellian Big Brother ideal of surveillance. Panopticism III, the final model of panopticism, refers to the high-technology human tracking systems that are emergent in this 21st century. These geographical information systems (GIS) include technologies such as cellphone GPS, RFIDs (radio-frequency identification tags), and geo-fences. Panopticism III is also distinguished by its costs:

Panopticon III is affordable, effective, and available to anyone who wants to use it. Initial purchase prices and monthly service fees are equivalent to cell-phone costs. In less than five years, the cost of continuous surveillance of a single individual has dropped from several hundred thousand dollars per year to less than $500 per year. Surveillance formerly justified solely for national security and high-stakes commerce is readily available to track a spouse, child, parent, employee, neighbor, or stranger.[12]



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