Foucault examines the idea of the panopticon as it relates to social control, a metaphor of the architectural design that Bentham proposed as an efficient surveillance structure and “enlightened” solution for hierarchical/authoritarian institutions like prisons, hospitals, schools, and workplaces. For the guards, doctors, teachers, and employer, there could perhaps be some relief in the utilizing the threat of surveillance to exert control rather than actual, continuous surveillance. Unlike Bentham, Foucault characterizes the panopticon as “a cruel, ingenious cage,” and a “mechanism” that “automatizes and disindividualizes power.”
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it…Bentham laid down 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 at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.
According to wikipedia, “The use of prisons can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization.” To move from a mechanism of surveillance to a mechanism of control assumes some consequence for disobeying the institution/authoritarian power. An important design aspect of the panopticon is that the surveillant cannot be seen, or counter-surveilled, and those surveilled are separated from each other, alone. The implication is that subordinates cannot know of, or communicate with each other to gain power, and cannot know anything of their surveillant, another avenue to power.
These constraints weaken the metaphor, since only prison-like structures can maintain separation and isolation such that people lose the power to organize and hold a central authority accountable. However, the latent surveillance apparatus has a psychological impact stemming from the knowledge that it could be employed at any moment. This calls to mind the de-facto surveillance structures that exist in low-income/urban areas, wherein institutions like schools and hospitals turn into places to avoid or be arrested. More recently, ICE has also targeted social gatherings and places people receive social services. A parallel is often drawn to dragnet telecommunications surveillance, but in this case the surveillant is not central and visible, but rather distributed and somewhat invisible. The opacity of the surveillance infrastructure results in an additional undercurrent of uncertainty.
Besides for “observation,” Foucault posits the panopticon serves as “laboratory… a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals.” The discussion of “disciplinary mechanisms,” such as schools and charities as “centers of observation” feels particularly insidious in an age of big data. Between school records, reporting and research related to social services, particularly those that serve the poor, police records, video surveillance, and our digital traces, we cannot live without producing information about ourselves. It seems as though capitalist incentives perpetuate the results and insights from that data into our realities and into the future. How will we maintain a healthy ecosystem of free thought, resistance, and emergent sub-cultures?
…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.