Beyond The Panopticon


Plan of Millbank Prison,
Constructed 1812, on land originally purchased by Bentham for the construction of his Panopticon.

In a series of letters written in 1787 Jeremy Bentham outlined his concept of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. It was to be a structure designed to create the illusion in the minds of its inmates of continual observation by an invisible warden. Bentham considered it ideal for prisons, factories, hospitals, insane asylums, and ‘any sort of establishment in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection’.

Two centuries later his ideas have been only sporadically implemented, but the Pantopticon has become a central model and metaphor for many of our darker conceptions of what it means to look and survey in an ever more intensely imaged world. In large part due to it’s reinterpretation but Michel Foucault, the Panopticon remains one of the most frequently cited models for explaining how our behaviour is shaped and moderated by practices of looking, and the sensation of being observed.

The façade of the Panopticon looms particularly large in media theory, where it continues to inform conversations about the way photography (particularly state and institutionally operated forms of photography) shape our behaviour. That a more or less unrealised architectural technology, envisaged before the era of daguerreotype continues to be deployed to explain our behaviour in the era of the near ubiquitous digital camera seems to me to be very strange.

A number of writers have argued that Bentham’s model no longer makes sense, with varying degrees of convincingness and in the field of surveillance studies there have been attempts to move beyond the model of the Panopticon, giving rise to a number of ‘post-Panopticon’ models of surveillance. These arguments and alternatives have ranged from pointing out changes in the way control is exerted, to arguments that the original model has proved itself to be fundamentally flawed and ineffective. Others have pointed to the way we increasingly auto-surveil or expose ourselves to collective surveillance, for example by publishing every more intimate information about ourselves in the public domain.

I have a slightly different feeling, tied to some of my recent writings on surveillance and image aware algorithms. I sense that the Panopticon is still yet to attain the logical end form which Bentham’s ideas demand, but which would have been impossible to envisage in his time, or even in Foucault’s. What the Panopticon always depended on was the availability of a guard or watcher, present at least some of the time to detect transgressions and punish wrongdoers. In effect what this meant was that Panopticon’s name was a misnomer. Bentham’s conception of Panopticon was not ‘all seeing’ at all, it merely hinged on the idea that at any moment one might be observed.

A true Panopticon would demand an equal number of guards to inmates, each guard constantly observing. The impossibility of that is also the weakness of the system, that provided an inmate can control the sense of doubt the Panopticon is designed to cultivate, they can assume that most of the time they are in fact not being observed, and can get away with things they might be prohibited from doing. Any transgressions which go unpunished progressively weaken the observed person’s belief that they are subject to a near omnipotent gaze. This maybe in part explains the ineffectiveness of many cited examples of the media Panopticon, for example the United Kingdom’s vast number of CCTV cameras. We know from experience that most are unmonitored, and many don’t even work.

What I think we’re approaching now is a time when the human element of the Panopticon can be more or less dispensed with. The result is a system which no longer rests on the possibility that someone might be watching us at any given time, but by the more disturbing certainty that something definitely is. A combination of the massive proliferation of networked cameras into almost every arena of life, alongside the growing capacity of governments and other organisations to automatically harvest, store and process vast amounts of information in near real time suggests frightening possibilities for future surveillance. The growing sophistication of software designed to detect subtle behaviours completes a terrifying trinity.

A huge networked panopticon, algorithmically detecting or perhaps even pre-empting transgressive or subversive behaviour sounds like dystopian science fiction, but the pieces that could make it reality seem to be falling into place. Given a choice, would people agree to being monitored by such a disturbing system? The National Security Agency surveillance revelations reveal the problem of assuming that our assent would even be sought. More troublingly though, these revelations have perhaps laid the groundwork for the collective psychological change needed to accept the idea of a truly omnipotent form of surveillance. For all the outrage we might feel we more or less now accept that we live in a state of pervasive surveillance.

We understand information in fundamentally different ways to previous generations, as a commodity which we generate like heat, with almost with every movement, every keystroke. The NSA revelations have established as fact the previously radical idea that very few of our communications are safe from interception. The virtual world increasingly mirrors the real, physical world, and as we accept the idea that one of these worlds is prone to such all seeing surveillance, that reality is sure to follow in the other.