The Panopticon

In the 1700s, philosopher Jeremy Bentham drew blueprints for a prison. He called it the Panopticon.


Within the Panopticon, all inmates (pan-) are isolated are isolated from each other, and face inwards towards the watchtower.

From the watchtower, the watchman (-opticon) can survey all of the prisoners, all of the time. The prisoners can never be sure if they are being watched or not. They live under a disciplining gaze.

Image: Friman / Wikimedia Commons

Two centuries later another philosopher called Michel Foucault became fascinated by Bentham’s prison. In his seminal book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison he explained:

“As opposed to the ruined prisons, littered with mechanisms of torture, to be seen in Piranese’s engravings, the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage. The fact that it should have given rise, even in our own time, to so many variations, projected or realized, is evidence of the imaginary intensity that it has possessed for almost two hundred years.

But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.”

The same mechanism of power, Foucault argued, could be seen in many other buildings and places. Sports stadiums, hospitals, classrooms, factory floors, and even offices have followed the Panopticon design. They are all characterised by having an “watchman” (a teacher, boss, police) watching with authority over a mass (pupils, workers, sports fans).

At any given time, you might be watched.

Image: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr

In another French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote a fascinating, if slightly cryptic essay called Postscript on the Societies of ControlHe described a transformation from the societies of discipline described by Foucault, to societies that were instead organised around control. The difference between discipline and control, he argued, was that where discipline punishes disobedience, control prevents disobedience.

One example of this could be the subtle redesigning of public benches. Sleeping on a bench is considered to be disobedient. In a society of discipline, park wardens and police officers might hassle people who try to sleep on public benches. This would be a Panoptic mechanism of power, or perhaps even the park or the street and its benches would be laid out similar to Bentham’s Panopticon. In the societies of control however, the benches are made impossible to sleep on. Instead of punishing or deterring disobedience, disobedience is made impossible.


Image: Eluveitie / Wikimedia Commons
Image: the Wub / Wikimedia Commons
Image: the Wub / Wikimedia Commons

Another example is the recent methods being used to respond to the disobedience of content piracy/sharing. In a disciplinary society, ushers might keep an eye out for people filming during a cinema screening. Or maybe video shops would be under the disciplining gaze of undercover shoppers. In societies of control, people are instead prevented from watching pirated films by mechanisms such as this:


PS3s and other devices are now able to scan media files and identify illegitimate content. Once identified, the film is muted and rendered unwatchable, we are told that “the content being played is not authorised”.

If we are transitioning from societies of discipline to societies of control, we will see more of these control mechanisms.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s