Posted by: vincentfinch | November 8, 2020

The Power of the Panopticon

The idea of the panopticon, first introduced by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, guides nearly all of contemporary Western culture. Though the panopticon was created with the intent of applying it to schools, hospitals, etc, it became most known as a prison design. The panopticon is both an architectural design and a system of control in which a single guard is stationed at a central inspection station equipped with bright lights in a rotunda, so that the guard can keep watch of all prisoners from the same location. Crucially, the stationing of only one guard means that they cannot watch all prisoners at the same time; however, because the prisoners cannot see the guard, they are motivated to act as though they are being watched constantly, simply because they are never sure if they are being watched or not. This means that a very small group of people (even an individual) can exercise control over a very large number of people. The power of the panopticon rests not in constant active surveillance, but in the potential for it. 

The panopticon sneaks its way into a variety of contemporary technologies that we tend to accept as parts of our daily lives. Security cameras in stores, on streets, and at stop lights are always recording and watching, except when they are just the covers with no camera inside. Police cars are stationed along highways ready to check everyone’s speed, except when the cars are empty. Smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google are always listening in, recording and processing the information told to them, and sometimes recording information merely told in their presences. In each of these cases, technological advances have resulted in these images and recordings — consolidated into individual profiles — becoming more accurate and harder to opt out of. 

The guard in the panopticon is a god-like figure. The lights on the inspection station are intended to be bright enough to prohibit prisoners from seeing the guard clearly. When they look up towards the tower, they see bright white lights (religious imagery, anyone?) and know that a faceless, all-seeing being ultimately has control. Further, god is often depicted in disguise, with the intent to test their followers. This, too, follows the logic of the panopticon — you never know who god is pretending to be, so you must treat everyone as though they could be them. Who are we positioning as god in contemporary applications of the panopticon? If followers and believers give a deity power, then what are we doing to encourage or discourage them?


  1. Hi Vincent! Thank you for the introduction to the panopticon; it was something I was familiar with conceptually but did not know the name of, and you provided lots of key details that made it easier to understand. Your point about how “the power of the panopticon rests not in constant active surveillance, but in the potential for it” is especially intriguing to me. The idea of being unsure whether or not the “god” is watching is also slightly reminiscent of Pascal’s wager to me, if only in that the prisoners are incapable of knowing whether or not they are being observed, so most will play it safe and act as though they are all the time. You ask some great questions at the end as well. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. Hey Vince! This was a really neat post. I took a class my first year that ended up being mostly about the concept of the panopticon and how it can apply to modern technology. One of the things we talked about was Google street view with its camera driving around recording everything. The one hangup for the company though is private property (for example, the Google car can’t drive through Mount Holyoke’s campus, just around.) Kind of a strange opposite to the original setup? Also places a class barrier between who is seen and who is not seen by that “eye.”

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