Nearly two centuries after his death, the eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham — or most of him, anyway — still sits in state in the main building of University College London. For a time in the mid-twenty-tens, he was equipped with the PanoptiCam, “an online camera that streams what Bentham sees while sitting in his cabinet at UCL.” That most everyone gets the joke behind its name speaks to the enduring relevance of one of Bentham’s ideas in particular: the Panopticon, “a prison designed so that a prison guard could look into all cells at any time, and ensure that prisoners modified their behavior for the better.”
In Bentham’s Panopticon, many prisoners could be monitored effectively by just a few unseen guards. This accords, as Michel Foucault writes in 1975’s Discipline and Punish, with the principle that “power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” Foucault drew connections between the Panopticon and the complex, large-scale societies that had developed since Bentham’s day. Imagine if he’d lived to see the rise of social media.
In a series of posts by Philosophy for Change, Tim Rayner takes up just such an exercise. “By making our actions and shares visible to a crowd, social media exposes us to a kind of virtual Panopticon,” he writes. “This is not just because our activities are monitored and recorded by the social media service for the purposes of producing market analysis or generating targeted advertising.” But “the surveillance that directly affects us and impacts on our behavior comes from the people with whom we share.” In the online Panopticon, “we are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another as we share content.” Rayner wrote these words more than a decade ago, but anyone who has experienced life on social media then can hardly deny the parallels with Bentham’s vision.
Far from improving our behavior, however, this constant online surveillance has in a fair few cases made it considerably less appealing. Whatever the nature of its actual effects on those who inhabit it, the Panopticon is an undeniably powerful structure, at least metaphorically speaking. But we should remember that Bentham intended it to be a real, physical structure, one that could contain not just prisons but other types of institutions as well. Whether a Panopticon has ever been wholly built to his specifications seems to be a matter of debate, but we can see what one would look like in the 3D rendering by Myles Zhang at the top of the post: an appropriate medium, after all, in which to perceive an idea most fully realized in the digital realm.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.