The Panopticon Prison

My daughter is studying sociology and once in a while she sends me something she thinks I might be interested in.   The design of the Panopticon was one of  her recent offerings and I find the concept so diabolical I cannot help but share it with you.

At times a popular concept in prison architecture, the panopticon allows for a central tower with 360 degree visual access to all inmates.  The presence of a powerful light (but reflective or tinted glass would also do the trick) emanates from the watchtower.   Blinded by this light, it would be impossible for the inmates to tell whether there was someone watching them.  Under these circumstances, the safest default state would be to assume one was being watched at all times.  Eighteenth century philosopher, social theorist and designer of the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham, considered this a excellent way to coerce inmates into becoming complicit in their own behaviour control.  He did not, however, confine the Panopticon design to prisons, but considered its application suitable to schools, hospitals, sanatoriums and asylums.  Clearly, he is a fan of institutionalisation in all its forms, but that’s not really the point.

Seeking Solitude

I cannot imagine what it would be like to believe I am being watched at all times.  We might be sociable creatures, but I am not that sociable.  There is a requirement for some solitude, some privacy in most humans, but I do worry that in an era which requires us to be continually present and engaged, we may not have accidentally created our own panopticon prisons.  I remember a time as a teenager, when I might have felt the world was watching me.  This all-seeing eye was waiting for me to stuff it up and in order not to, I locked myself in my bedroom, telling my parents I could not possibly go out.

Pre-empting shame

If I were watched all the time, I would pre-empt the shame of being caught out at less than my public best and I might feel endlessly shamed.  On the other hand, maybe if I were watched all the time I might become immune and not care.  No, I don’t believe that.  These days loads of adults and teenagers alike have fun on social networking sites.  They are tempted to create on-line personas they believe are more palatable in order to interact with a multitude of people.  Previously, the capacity to reach people in such numbers was limited to the likes of world leaders and rock stars.  Now we can all do it, but at what cost?  In seeking visibility, aren’t we trading away what makes us deeply human, that which would be rejected as unfashionable and odd, but not in a retro, hipster, post-post-modern pre-eminently cutting-edge way?

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[…] Images :Drawing of the ‘Panopticon’ prison model from the book Management of the Poor by Jeremy Bentham, 1796.(Left) N. Harou-Romain, Plan for a penitentiary, 1840. From: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.(Middle) Presidio Modelo: Inmates standing in their cells, Cuba, 1926(Right) […]