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T he philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously requested in his will that his body be dissected and put on public display. This came to pass, and his skeleton now sits in a glass case at University College London, adorned with a wax head, waistcoat and jacket and sat on a wooden stool, staring out at students from its glass case. Bentham was regarded as the founder of utilitarianism and a leading advocate of the separation of church and state, freedom of expression and individual legal rights.
As I write this, a young couple are walking across the corridor, his hand pressed against the small of her back. As a work of architecture, the panopticon allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched. As a metaphor, the panopticon was commandeered in the latter half of the 20th century as a way to trace the surveillance tendencies of disciplinarian societies.
In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners — or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. Bentham went to visit his brother in the late s, saw what he was doing, and decided the centralised arrangement could be applied to all sorts of different situations - not just prisons but factories, schools and hospitals. Bentham managed to persuade the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, to fund a panopticon National Penitentiary, but a stream of problems eventually meant the project was abandoned.
Bentham never saw a panopticon built during his lifetime. The French philosopher Michel Foucault revitalised interest in the panopticon in his book Discipline and Punish. Foucault used the panopticon as a way to illustrate the proclivity of disciplinary societies subjugate its citizens. Monitoring electronic communications from a central location, that is panoptic. In many ways, the watchtower at the heart of the panopticon is a precursor to the cameras fastened to our buildings — purposely visible machines with human eyes hidden from view.
The parallels between the panopticon and CCTV may be obvious, but what happens when you step into the world of digital surveillance and data capture? For example, whether this type of visuality is as asymmetrical, and — I think more importantly — being co-opted for the same political exercise.
In the panopticon the occupants are constantly aware of the threat of being watched — this is the whole point — but state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no dead-eye lens staring at you every time you enter a URL. Another important difference is the relative intangibility of data surveillance.
In the private space of my personal browsing I do not feel exposed — I do not feel that my body of data is under surveillance because I do not know where that body begins or ends. We live so much of our lives online, share so much data, but feel nowhere near as much attachment for our data as we do for our bodies. Without physical ownership and without an explicit sense of exposure I do not normalise my actions. If anything, the supposed anonymity of the internet means I do the opposite.
My data, however, is under surveillance, not only by my government but also by corporations that make enormous amounts of money capitalising on it.
Not only that, but the amount of data on offer to governments and corporations is about to go through the roof, and as it does the panopticon may emerge as a model once more. Because our bodies are about to be brought back into the mix. The looming interconnectivity between objects in our homes, cars and cities, generally referred to as the internet of things, will change digital surveillance substantially. With everything from heart-rate monitors in smartwatches to GPS footwear , a bright light is once again being thrown on our bodies.
Will we feel exposed under the gaze of a central tower? Perhaps not, but with habits and physical stats charted against the norm, we will feel scrutinised nevertheless. Much of the justification of this is the alleged benefits to health and wellbeing. There may not be a central tower, but there will be communicating sensors in our most intimate objects.
The idea is that this transparency holds power to account, because the most dangerous people in society can be rulers. It is important that they, as well as prisoners, workers and children, feel watched. It is difficult not to think of that audience chamber when you stare at Bentham in his box, a skeleton on a stool, an object of information posed for all to see.
The Panopticon legacy As a work of architecture, the panopticon allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Technology The power of privacy. Reuse this content. Order by newest oldest recommendations.
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What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance?
The panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard , without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single guard to observe all the inmates' cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, the inmates are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour. The architecture consists of a rotunda with an inspection house at its centre.