A 3D Computer Animation of the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s 18th Century Design for an All-Controlling Prison

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Jere­my Bentham’s Mum­mi­fied Body Is Still on Dis­play – Much Like Oth­er Aging British Rock Stars

What Would Michel Fou­cault Think of Social Media, Fake News & Our Post Truth World?

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self (UC Berke­ley, 1980–1983)

On the Pow­er of Teach­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Pris­ons

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.

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