Michel Foucault’s Panopticon

Hon-Ming Gianotti

The philosopher Michel Foucault defined the modern prison as the “Panopticon”, a prison built in a circular fashion. Whereas in classic prisons, prisoners would have time to clean up their act upon hearing the jingling of the guards’ keys or footsteps in the dark, the Panopticon was designed to mitigate this.

Picture a building shaped like a tall cylinder. The guards stay safely in the center, a watch tower that can see in all directions from the middle. Meanwhile, the prisoners dwell in naked coves and cells on the outer circumference.


Originally, prisoners would feel more free from surveillance and act in a less disciplined fashion when guards were away (there’s always that urban legend about that prisoner who digs his way out with a spoon), but in Foucault’s described prison, guards were not restricted to roaming around, but able to see in every direction at any given time. Thus, the prisoners, under threat of being seen at any given time, act more disciplined and police themselves under not surveillance, but the threat of surveillance.

So why is this important?

Think about the Internet, about the endless security cameras that lie in every corner and hallway. Do you really feel free? Criminals in 2015 are always caught on tape, on video, on camera. Police can track IP addresses and phone locations without difficulty. In fact, the most secure cellphone available to the public, the Blackberry, was discontinued. Do you really feel free to post your opinions in public places? To act ‘out of line’ or commit petty crimes in convenience stores or shopping malls? Of course, this psychological mechanism could be making us more disciplined, or lowering our rates of crime. But are they just?

Even though we feel free and unrestricted in our upper-class society, and even at school, people are watching.

Or they could be.

Stay free.