What is the Panopticon?

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  • Written By: M. Haskins
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 April 2020
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The Panopticon, loosely translated as "all-seeing," is a type of prison designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and was the subject of his book "Panopticon; or, the Inspection-House" published in 1785. Bentham described a ring-shaped building with cells extending all the way from the outer to the inner walls, with an observation tower in the center. The prison was constructed in such a way that the prisoners were always visible from the tower, but could not see other inmates or know if and when they were being observed. Bentham's idea was that the constant possibility of observation would improve inmate behavior and lead to increased security. In more recent times, the idea of constant surveillance to increase security, and how this affects privacy rights, has been raised when debating modern technologies like video surveillance, electronic listening devices, and technologies for gathering personal information.

Bentham tried to have a Panopticon prison built but never succeeded. He argued that it would reduce labor costs because it required less staff, since the mere illusion of omniscient, ever-present observers would be enough to control the inmates. Bentham also thought that this form of penal imprisonment would reduce prison mortality rates. He described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Panopticon has been used by some people as a metaphor for modern societies, some based on totalitarianism, where state power functions automatically because the population has "internalized" state supervision. This means that individuals control and suppress their own behavior without need for actual enforcement. The Panopticon idea has also been used when discussing total institutions. A total institution is a place where people are isolated with strict and impersonal controls placed on their lives, eventually resulting in a breakdown of the personal self. Mental hospitals, concentration camps, boarding schools, and army barracks have been used as examples of total institutions.

The increasing use of computer and video surveillance in public places, workplaces, schools, and many other locations has been compared to the Panopticon, and has been criticized for threatening personal privacy rights. For example, the Information Awareness Office (IAO) established in 2002 in the United States to counteract threats to national security raised such fears. The IAO would have created extensive databases to gather and store personal information without requiring search warrants. After criticism that this could lead to a mass surveillance system, funding for the IAO was removed in 2003.

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