Panopticism is a social theory named after the Panopticon, originally developed by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. The "panopticon" refers to an experimental laboratory of power in which behaviour could be modified, and Foucault viewed the panopticon as a symbol of the disciplinary society of surveillance.
Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon in the 18th century as a circular building with an observation tower in the centre of an open space surrounded by an outer wall. This wall would contain cells for occupants. This design would increase security by facilitating more effective surveillance. Residing within cells open to the tower, occupants would be readily distinguishable and visible to an official invisibly positioned there. Conversely, occupants would be invisible to each other, with concrete walls dividing their cells. Due to louvers in the windows of the tower, occupants would not be able to tell if and when they are being watched, making discipline a passive rather than an active action. As a result, the cell-mates behave as if they are being watched, though they cannot be certain eyes are actually on them. There is a type of invisible discipline that reigns through the prison, for each prisoner self-regulates, in fear that someone is watching their every move. Although usually associated with prisons, Bentham suggested that the panoptic style of architecture might be used in other institutions with surveillance needs, such as schools, forced-labor factories, lazarettos, insane asylums, or hospitals.
Foucault's Discipline and Punish
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault builds on Bentham's conceptualization of the panopticon as he elaborates upon the function of disciplinary mechanisms in such a prison and illustrates the function of discipline as an apparatus of power. The ever-visible inmate, Foucault suggests, is always "the object of information, never a subject in communication". 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).
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". 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".
By separating 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" 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 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.
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. 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.
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 beginning 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).
"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 régimes, apparatuses or institutions" (220-221).
Panopticism and information technology
Building onto Foucault's Panopticism and Bentham's original Panopticon, Shoshana Zuboff applies the Panoptical theory in a technological context in her book, "In the Age of the Smart Machine." In chapter nine, Zuboff provides a very vivid portrayal of the Information Panopticon as a means of surveillance, discipline and, in some cases, punishment in a work environment. The Information Panopticon embodies Bentham's idea in a very different way. Information Panopticons do not rely on physical arrangements, such as building structures and direct human supervision. Instead, a computer keeps track of a worker’s every move by assigning him or her specific tasks to perform during their shift. Everything, from the time a task is started to the time it is completed, is recorded. Workers are given a certain amount of time to complete the task based on its complexity. All this is monitored by supervision from a computer. Based on the data, the supervisor can monitor a worker’s performance and take any necessary action when needed.
The Information Panopticon can be defined as a form of centralized power that uses information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms. Unlike the Panopticon envisioned by Bentham and Foucault, in which those under surveillance were unwilling subjects, Zuboff’s work suggests that the Information Panopticon is facilitated by the benefits it offers to willing participants.
In chapter ten of “In the Age of the Smart Machine,” Zuboff provides the example of DIALOG, a computer conferencing system used at a pharmaceutical corporation in the 1970s. The conferencing system, originally intended to facilitate communication among the corporation’s many branches, quickly became popular with employees. Users of DIALOG found that the system facilitated not only innovation and collaboration, but also relaxation, as many employees began to use the system to joke with one another and discuss non-work related topics. Employees widely reported that using the system was a positive experience because it created a culture of shared information and discussion, which transcended the corporation’s norms of formality and hierarchy that limited the spread of information between divisions and employees of different ranks. This positive culture was enabled by the privacy seemingly offered by the conferencing system, as discussion boards could be made to allow access only to those who were invited to participate. The Panoptic function of the conferencing system was revealed, however, when managers were able to gain access to the informal discussion boards where employees posted off-color jokes. Messages from the discussion were posted around the office to shame contributors, and many of DIALOG’s users, now knowing there was a possibility that their contributions could be read by managers and fearing they would face disciplinary action, stopped using the system. Some users, however, kept using the system, raising the question of whether remaining users modified their behavior under the threat of surveillance, as prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon would, or whether they believed that the benefits offered by the system outweighed the possibility of punishment.
Zuboff’s work shows the dual nature of the Information Panopticon – participants may be under surveillance, but they may also use the system to conduct surveillance of others by monitoring or reporting other users’ contributions. This is true of many other information and communication technologies with Panoptic functions – cellphone owners may be tracked without their knowledge through the phones’ GPS capabilities, but they may also use the device to conduct surveillance of others. Thus, compared to Bentham’s Panopticon, the Information Panopticon is one in which everyone has the potential to be both a prisoner and a guard.
It is argued by Foucault that industrial management has paved the way for a very disciplinary society. A society that values objectivity over everything else. The point of this is to get as much productivity from the workers as possible. Contrasting with Bentham's model prison, workers within the Information Panopticon know they are being monitored at all times. Even if a supervisor is not physically there, the computer records their every move and all this data is at the supervisor's finger tips at all times. The system's objectivity can have a psychological impact on the workers. Workers feel the need to conform and satisfy the system rather than doing their best work or expressing concerns they might have.
The Information Panopticon diverts from Jeremy Bentham's model prison by adding more levels of control. While the Bentham's model prison system is made up of inmates at the lowest level monitored by a guard, the Information Panopticon can have various levels. A company or firm can have various satellite locations, each monitored by a supervisor, and then a regional supervisor monitoring the supervisors below him or her. Depending on the structure and size of a firm, information Panopticons can have several levels, each monitoring all the levels beneath it.
Now, the efficiency of the Information Panopticon is in question. Does it really lead to a better work place and higher productivity, or does it simply put unnecessary stress on the people being monitored? A major criticism of the system is its objectivity. It is solely based on numbers, therefore not allowing for human error. According to Zuboff, some people find the system to be highly advantageous, while others think it is very flawed because it does not account for the effort a worker puts into a task or things outside of a worker's control. Furthermore, the lack of direct supervision only adds to a potentially precarious situation.
Theoretical arguments in favor of rejecting the Foucauldian model of Panopticism may be considered under five general headings:
- Displacement of the Panoptical ideal by mechanisms of seduction,
- Redundancy of the Panoptical impulse brought about by the evident durability of the self-surveillance functions which partly constitute the normal, socialized, ‘Western’ subject,
- Reduction in the number of occasions of any conceivable need for Panoptical surveillance on account of simulation, prediction and action before the fact,
- Supplementation of the Panopticon by the Synopticon,
- Failure of Panoptical control to produce reliably docile subjects.
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’.
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.
This kind of anticipation is particularly evident in emergent surveillance technologies such as social network analysis.
The ‘Synopticon’ concerns the surveillance of the few by the many. 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”.
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.”
In their 2007 article, Dobson and Fisher 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.
The Cornell University professor and information theorist Branden Hookway introduced the concept of a Panspectrons in 2000: an evolution of the panopticon to the effect that it does not define an object of surveillance more, but everyone and everything is monitored. The object is defined only in relation to a specific issue.
- Discourse, a Foucaultian concept developed in Discipline and Punish, among other works.
- Hawthorne effect
- Mass surveillance
- Global surveillance disclosures (2013–present)
- Surveillance capitalism
- Simone Browne
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