Panopticon

The Panopticon is a type of prison designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The idea was that by using a circular design with the watchmen in the middle and the inmates in cells around the outside, a single watchman would be able to watch over all of the inmates without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Though the watchman can’t physically watch all the inmates at once, the fact inmates cannot know when they’re being watched means that they act as though they are, altering and controlling their behaviour at all times assuring the automatic functioning of power.

Panopticon diagram

Another philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish used the idea of the Panopticon as a metaphor for modern disciplinary societies and their inclination to observe and normalise. He believes that the Panopticon is the ultimate architectural figure of disciplinarily power as it uses a consciousness of permanent visibility to instil power rather than bars and chains like traditional prisons.

Building upon this idea, modern technology has brought this idea of constant surveillance to current society with the deployment of panoptic structures with CCTV cameras on them in public spaces. When people feel that they are constantly being watched they change their actions and behaviour with the idea that it will cut down on crime. Even I’ve noticed this when walking around campus for example, when I spot the camera I instantly become more conscious of my actions and appearance thinking that I’m being watched. Panopticism provides us with a model of a self-disciplined society, in which we govern ourselves and control behaviours without the need for constant surveillance and intervention by an external agency.

Similarly Panopticism has been linked to internet usage too, as ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are able to track our every move online and view our data (dataveillance). Many websites also use cookies to track data about the sites we visit and the products we look at to provide targeted advertising to try and persuade us to buy products or visit websites similar to ones we’ve looked at in the past. One prime example of this that people are becoming more aware of is when booking hotels or flights. The booking websites use cookies that track how many times you’ve been on the website to check prices, and each time you do it raises the prices to make you think that the rooms or flights are being booked up and to get you to spend your money now. By using Private mode on your browser it blocks these cookies so your visits can’t be tracked and the prices aren’t pushed up allowing you to get a better deal.


The idea of the Panopticon and panopticism could be used in my project by playing with the idea of the audience being watched but not knowing. In a sense it is a role reversal. As the audience they’re watching one thing on the screen when in reality it is watching them without them knowing and potentially reacting to their presence or movements.

UPDATE: Looking back at this post after i’ve advanced a bit further with my project has made me consider whether its still relevant. Above I mention how the Panopticon is ‘a metaphor for modern disciplinary societies and their inclination to observe and normalise’ however in relation to my face swapping idea, its using observation to do the opposite of ‘normalise’. While the cameras are observing the audience/ participants, instead of changing their behaviour to conform to what would be considered ‘normal’ it does the opposite by playing with their representations on screen in an attempt to alter their behaviour and deviate even further from the norm by invoking play.

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One thought on “Panopticon

  1. […] could be an interesting idea to play with (as mentioned at the end of my panopticon post) by basing interactions about watching the audience, in an attempt to change their behaviour. This […]

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