We live in a Panopticon prison

Future of Society

In 1817, Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social theorist, was given £23,000 to build the world’s first ever Panopticon prison in New Delhi. The Panopticon prison was made of a central tower for guards surrounded by a ring-shaped building of prison cells facing the tower. The aim of the design was to maximise the number of prisoners the prison could hold, while minimising the number of guards needed to watch them.

The aim of the Panopticon is to transform the vehicle for surveillance from a physical authority figure into an internalised sense of self-discipline. Indeed, the prisoners behaved as if they were being watched even if they weren’t being watched at that exact moment. If we take this to the logical extreme, you could argue that no guards at all would be necessary to achieve the same effect. This is the reality in which we live.

When we look beyond the prison cell, we see the Panopticon effect weaponising the threat of observation to normalise behaviour that keeps power structures intact (Foucault). Whether it’s running a red light even if there are no cars, pedestrians or police at the junction, or diligently paying for what you take at an honesty bar even though no-one’s watching, the pervasive nature of our internalised authority is stark.

While a certain level of internalised law-abiding is critical for a society to function well, we have got to a stage where we are governed by invisible rules. And we no longer question them. Every single day, we sign a silent social contract with the powers that be that they can continue to watch us carefully while they remain invisible yet omniscient. This lack of questioning by the ordinary citizen means that these invisible rules become invincible. This is how power thrives.

If we have any hope of deconstructing these power structures, we must first recognise that we exist in a panoptic society. As James Hollis so eloquently puts it: “…we seldom suspect the conditioned nature of our perception.” We must then teach our children to question, rather than blindly accept, the rules that our omnipotent guards condition us to believe are the “correct” lens through which to see the world.

March 8, 2024