KEYWORD | Text and Context

Panopticonism

Panopticonism was a theory introduced by Michel Foucault in one of his most influential books, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Panopticonism was a theory introduced by Michel Foucault in one of his most influential books, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. It is a concept which explains a new model of surveillance in society.

The structure

Introduced by English philosopher and architect Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon was a circular building with cells built into its circular walls with an observational tower at the centre. A guard could observe every move of the prisoners in each cell from the observational tower. The prisoners, in turn, could see the tower but could not see anything inside it on account of the difference in height as well as the shutters and blinds. The ambiguity about whether or not they were being observed forced the prisoners to conduct themselves inside their cells with the assumption that the guards could be observing them at any point in time.

THE GIST
The panopticon is a circular building with cells built into its walls with an observational tower at the centre. A guard could observe all the prisoners from the observational tower, but the prisoners, while they could see the tower, could not see anything inside it. The ambiguity about whether or not they were being observed forced the prisoners to conduct themselves at all times.
Michel Foucault takes this architectural structure and transforms it into a philosophical theory that helps us understand how surveillance has changed the power relationship between individuals and systems of social control.
The present-day CCTV camera is a candid example of how the theory works with people being cautious about how they behave irrespective of whether the camera is functional or not.

This was the perfect idea for a prison, according to Bentham, as it was visible yet unverifiable. He believed that the fear of constant surveillance could help bring order and discipline, alter and reform groups and preserve morals inside the four walls of the prison.

The theory

Foucault takes the architectural structure and transforms it into a philosophical theory that helps us understand how the idea of surveillance and the power relationship between individuals and systems of social control changed post-panopticon. An advocate of individual freedom, he believed that visibility was a ‘trap’ that would coerce people into disciplining themselves and behaving in a way that pleased systems of power and knowledge. Foucault explains how such invisible observation helps systems of control beyond the prison structure. If invisible surveillance features are installed in society, people would self-regulate themselves assuming that they are being constantly observed even when there is no one observing them. This makes panoptic surveillance more economical and efficient than total surveillance. It produces outcomes desired by systems of control without unleashing actual violence, but through structural violence wherein people are devoid of freedom owing to their psychological fear of being watched. This is a one-way attainment of information, which can be further used to control citizens.

1984 by George Orwell is a remarkable book that visualises a panoptic surveillance state. The plot revolves around Winston Smith and the way he looks at the dystopian society he lives in. Throughout the book, the author mentions the ‘Big Brother’ who is always watching, and how citizens in the fictional totalitarian state of Oceania seem to be living in a virtual prison controlled by technology and propaganda. People seem hesitant to talk or even think against the oligarchy not because they see a policeman or a guard watching over them but owing to the fear that there could be a spy amidst them listening to their thoughts (the spy could even be your own child).

Foucault believed that panopticonism would spread and have unprecedented consequences in societies as systems of control would use it for their benefit at the cost of individual freedom.

The panopticon today

As predicted by Foucault, panopticonism has spread in unexpected ways in our society. The present-day CCTV camera is a candid example of how the theory works with people being cautious about how they behave irrespective of whether the camera is functional. It, for instance, inculcates more fear among students writing an exam preventing them from cheating than the presence of an invigilator.

Psychologist Shoshana Zuboff took the concept further with “surveillance capitalism”, which is a system of surveillance that was extended to marketing. Computers and mobile phones become a medium for monitoring one’s actions. An individual’s performance at the workplace is recorded and monitored through their keystrokes. Governments track our phones and keep a record of our biometrics in the name of preventing terrorism. As a marketing strategy, social media platforms tap into our search histories, understand our interests and squeeze in advertisements on our social media pages.

This sort of monitoring and data collection is analogous to the panopticon because its a one-way information avenue, where systems of power use technology to monitor and even control our likes and dislikes.

Though the act of giving our fingerprints for an Aadhar card, or giving access to our location and our contact lists to almost every mobile application we download seem trivial, these are methods of invisible surveillance that control us on a daily basis.

The panopticon, thus, comes alive through new technologies and innovations that curtail our freedom.


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Printable version | Apr 20, 2022 11:04:41 am | https://www.thehindu.com/specials/text-and-context/panopticonism/article65334874.ece