Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon 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 flooded with light, occupants would be readily distinguishable and visible to an official invisibly positioned in the central tower. Conversely, occupants would be invisible to each other, with concrete walls dividing their cells. Although usually associated with prisons, the panoptic style of architecture might be used in other institutions with surveillance needs, such as schools, factories, 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 illustrated 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 individualizing 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...
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