The Panopticon – An English Lesson

Panopticon design

Panopticon Design From

Warm Up

“All punishment in itself is evil.”
– Jeremy Bentham

1.) Can you express this idea in different words? (Take turns trying different ways.)
2.) In what ways do you agree?
3.) In what ways do you disagree?
4.) Talk about a situation where this quote holds true.
5.) Talk about a situation where this quote doesn’t hold up.


Before we get into the topic of the panopticon, let’s check out some vocabulary words:

humane – characterized by kindness and compassion
a show of force – a display of power
intermittent – reoccurring / starting and stopping
surveillance – Observation / monitoring
to turn out to be – to become / to be understood to be true
to tend to be – to be likely to (Note that to tend = to care for)
to suit – to go well with / to meet the needs of (Note a suit = a set of clothing)
compelling – forceful / strong
to come to pass – happen/occur
chilling effect – the undesirable effect of discouraging a behaviour
pervasive – widespread / spread to every part
policy – a set way of doing things
to far exceed – to do well beyond
whistleblower – someone who exposes bad actions within an organization
to sight / site – to sight is to refer to. A site is a location or place
to lure – to attract, usually by dishonest means
to rein (something/someone) in – to stop or slow down
widespread – In many places / See pervasive
deterrent – something that prevents
benevolent – characterized by goodness and kindness
incarceration rate – the rate at which people are put in prison
trustworthy – worthy of trust / honest
to resemble – to be similar to / to look like
peril – danger
awareness – the state of being aware of something / conscious of something

1.) Try using the words in your own sentences.
2.) Based on the vocabulary list, what do you guess the reading is about?

The World as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

A panopticon is a prison with a specific type of architectural design. ‘Panoptes’ is from Greek, meaning “all seeing”.

When Jeremy Bentham and his brother Samuel published the idea of the panopticon in 1791, prisons in England were dark, crowded dungeons. Social control was achieved by a combination of hiding criminals away and organizing public spectacles of torture and extreme violence.

Aren’t you glad that you don’t live in 18th century England?
Select an activity:
1.) Describe being thrown in an 18th century prison, or invent a 1st person story. Imagine that you are an innocent person, thrown in with all of the other prisoners.
2.) Read about the history of prisons and write a 250 word essay.
3.) Predict what the essay will cover next.

Bentham imagined a different system of punishment. His panopticon was intended to be both more humane and more efficient.

Prisoners were separated, each into a separate cell. Each cell was visible from a central guard tower. The prisoners’ cells were exposed, they could be being watched at any moment. The prisoners couldn’t see who was watching them, or when. So the prisoners had to assume that they were being watched all the time.

The old way of managing a prison required a lot of guards. A panopticon only requires a few guards in the tower at any given time. Or, theoretically, none at all. When all of the prisons feel watched all the time, does it matter if anyone is watching?

Bentham’s concept was a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”(1). Intermittent surveillance, when people don’t know if and when they are being observed, turns out to be a very effective psychological tool.

When prisoners suspect that they are being watched by someone who can hurt or punish them, they start imagining how they appear to the watcher. Since they never know when they are being observed, they live every moment under the assumption that it’s possible. Prisoners learn to see not out of their own eyes, but as a set of all seeing, unseen eyes that sits above them, looking back at them.

What do you think?
1.) How much of the time do you spend feeling observed by others?
2.) How do you modify your behavior when you feel watched?

The idea was compelling enough that the British government had Millbank, the first panopticon style prison, built in 1821. The idea spread to France, the United States, Cuba, the Netherlands, and eventually to many countries around the world.

Millbank Prison Panopticon

Millbank Prison

Thanks to

Bentham didn’t just see the panopticon as a model for prisons, but also for other institutions where he thought people needed to be controlled. He envisioned a society where schools, hospitals, homeless shelters (poorhouses), and factories (workhouses) were built on the same idea and design.

Bentham was disappointed that his idea of intermittent surveillance wasn’t adopted in his lifetime. But as the philosopher Michael Foucault has pointed out, it later became a fundamental part of how governments control their populations.

Michel Foucault and modern surveillance

1.) Watch the video for a brief introduction to Foucault’s theory on the development of modern surveillance.
2.) Summarize what you watched.

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Surveillance technology has advanced considerably since Foucault’s Discipline and Punish came out in 1975. But his predictions have largely come to pass. One of the most extreme examples of the chilling effect of feeling constantly monitored is it’s effect on Chinese citizens. In the words of security expert Bruce Schneier:

“The fact that you won’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of pervasive surveillance… Governments, of course, know this. China bases its surveillance on this fact. It wants people to self-censor, because it knows it can’t stop everybody. The idea is that if you don’t know where the line is, and the penalty for crossing it is severe, you will stay far away from it. [It’s] basic human conditioning.”(2.)

The U.K. has also adopted extensive, mass surveillance as part of its law and order policy. Between state and private monitors, there is one CCTV camera for every 32 people in the U.K. (4.). This far exceeds Bentham’s dream of organizing institutions as panopticons.

The American model is a little different, in that the watchers want the incredible power associated with seeing and not being seen, but they go even further. They didn’t want their citizens to be aware of the extent to which they are being spied upon. In 2013, Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) whistleblower revealed that the U.S. government was illegally collecting vast amounts of information on its own citizens. The government has labelled Snowden a criminal for letting people know about the government’s own criminal acts.

While governments and private companies often sight security and protection as their reason to spy on their citizens and customers, it is little more than an excuse. The incredible amount of power and money involved are reason enough. Social Media sites collect data, not to protect users, but to sell the information to actors who use it against users. In order to get to be part of modern society, people have to share their data with these companies. After 9/11, the American government increased its surveillance of its own people to a shocking degree, and not just against suspected bad actors.

As Beens states, in his article The State of Mass Surveillance, when “it became clear the information represented huge political and economic power, it led to ‘function creep’ (when information is used for a purpose beyond the original specified one) because the lure of continuing or extending the surveillance was too strong to rein it in“(3).

There is a common belief that widespread monitoring of citizens not only catches criminals but acts as a deterrent, preventing people from commit crime in the first place. The argument goes that the erosion of personal privacy is worth the price, because it makes people safer.

To some extent this seems to be true. Studies show that even posters of eyes staring gets people to clean up after themselves and decrease littering (5). If being observed acts as a deterrent, and keeps people safe, why then, would the American government try to hide their mass surveillance from its people?

I believe that it is because people know that they are only safer when they are being monitored by a benevolent and caring observer. And a government with the highest incarceration rate in the world, who spies on their own people as though they are the enemy is not good or trustworthy.

People are indifferent to living in a world that increasingly resembles a panopticon at their own peril. There is profound chilling effect that feeling observed has on people’s sense of creativity, happiness and freedom, and this effect is doubled when the observer is thought to be threat. The expression goes “dance as though no one is watching”. How can anyone dance this way anymore? And allowing governments and private organizations this incredible level of surveillance is dangerous. When corporations are designing systems that can addict and control people without their awareness, why do we allow them the data they need to build these systems? And when governments already spy on and treat their own people as criminals, you need to ask yourself who we actually need protection from.

Comprehension Questions

1.) Why do there only need to a few guards in the tower, “or none at all”, in Betham’s design?
2.) Compare how China, the U.K., and the U.S. governments use surveillance differently, according to the article.
3.) How has the idea of mass surveillance changed since Bentham came up with the concept of the panopticon?

Causative Verbs
Learn about causative verbs.
Look at the words that are underlined in the essay. What do they mean in context?

Passive Voice
A lot of the sentences in the essay are in Passive Voice. Can you identify them, and make them active?
Review the Passive Voice.

Footnotes and References

(1.) Alex Boreham, Panopticon – 1791 – Jeremy Benthan
(2.) Johnathan Shaw, The Watchers, Assaults on Privacy in America, Harvard Magazine
(3.) Robert Beens, The State of Mass Surveillance, Forbes Magazine
(4.) How the Illusion of Being Watched Can Make You a Better Person, Scientific American
(5.) The Guardian, You’re Being Watched

Further Reading

Computerized model – An animation
The Architecture of Surveillance – Photos of a panopticon
The Works of Jeremy Bentham – Read or download the original writings
Surveillance and Foucault – An essay
Surveillance Studies – An essay