The panopticon in the twenty-first century

Caoimhe Gordon investigates how the concept of the panopticon can be seen in today’s society in the form of social media.

In the late eighteenth century, an English philosopher by the name of Jeremy Bentham had a brainwave after visiting his sibling in Russia. His brother Samuel, determined to reign over his unskilled workforce, placed himself in the centre of the factory to ensure that his employees were completing their designated tasks. This visit resulted in a sudden flash of inspiration for Bentham, who envisioned a building, a type of prison like none ever built before. This imaginary institution had a lone watchtower in the middle of a courtyard, with the cells built in a circle surrounding the tower itself. Bentham believed that this “panopticon” would leave the prisoners overwhelmed with a sense of paranoia, as they would not be aware of which cell would be watched at any given time from the watchtower. Therefore, this would create an omnipresent, haunting feeling for each and every prisoner that they were being constantly watched every minute of every day. This would then surely have an undeniable impact on their behaviour while incarcerated, Bentham believed. In his own words, he described his quest to apply his newfound theory as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”.

In the twentieth century, after decades filled with a plethora of debate and criticism – and with few actual panopticons being built – another philosopher, Michel Foucault of France, brought the idea of the panopticon back into the public sphere by transforming the notorious concept into a compelling metaphor for modern societies. His influential writings in the aptly titled “Discipline and Punish” revealed his musings about the related nature of the prison of fear, and the daily lives of citizens living in so-called freedom in modern society: “The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains and heavy locks are necessary for domination anymore.”

In the same century, George Orwell published his dystopian novel 1984 about a society fiercely regulated by the government, coining the infamous adage, “Big Brother is watching you”.

Now we reach the twenty-first century. CCTV is common on every corner. Body cameras are rife among law enforcement officials. Webcams can be hacked and credit cards can be scammed.

And yet more innovations have been introduced that contribute to a creeping feeling of constant observation. More chillingly, unlike CCTV or the hacking of email accounts, they are all opted for willingly by the oversharers, the merely curious and just about every other citizen with internet access. Google have created glasses that record every nanosecond of their wearer’s day, every mundane interaction, every casual gaze. There were over 2.01 billion active Facebook users as of June 2017. Every second, around 6,000 tweets are released into the ether, joining the 500 million other short rambles published in total per day. And since this summer, Snapchat users have now the option to casually and anonymously track their friends’ locations on the Snapchat map.

“Oh, look his Bitmoji is holding a golf club. And this lad is in the airport, he’s holding a suitcase”, a friend announced one day, glancing down at her phone. The “permanent visibility” Foucault discussed in 1975 has been accepted by a record number of users online – in a “quantity hitherto without example” as imagined by Bentham two hundred years ago. Discussions with friends are now filled with sentences that would have possessed little or no meaning only 365 days before, many accompanied by a brandished phone to illustrate the point. Knowing exactly where your comrades are, or if they are listening to music, as conveyed by the little cartoon character that is supposed to resemble them, often feels strange, as does the ability to simply zoom into the exact streets to see where they currently stand.

In the modern era, the panopticon – a symbol of unrelenting surveillance – continues to reign supreme. Now, armed with a myriad of public weapons to keep the population in the knowledge that they are being watched – as well as the maudlin acceptance that privacy is no longer a reality – the panopticon creates a quagmire for the world’s population. Many may complain when they feel overexposed or detest the shameful awkwardness of having to feign surprise upon hearing news from a friend which has already been poured over online. Yet we continue to push the boundaries of oversharing, continue to zoom in on that random friend from the Gaeltacht on the Snapchat map to see where she is staying in Greece, and continue to consider the optimum time for posting important content. Does the overwhelming feeling that you are always being watched by so-called “friends” alter your natural behaviour, like the imaginary prisoners of Bentham? Running your social media accounts is now akin to running a marketing campaign, except the product on offer is the life you would like your followers to perceive as reality.

I asked a close friend and avid Snapchatter about her opinion of recent developments, and she explained: “I guess with the Snapchat map, it’s not just the government or whatever that can invade our privacy but now everyone can. I don’t think there’s too much danger if you’re just sharing it with your mates but if people have loads of unknown followers, that’s a bit risky.” She offered the example of a local makeup artist who has many followers but my friend comments that she feels it’s a bit strange that she is aware of where that woman is, especially when they are essentially strangers. However, she praises the ability to turn on “ghost mode”: “I think it’s good to know that we can control the extent we use the map.”

However, the startling fact that today’s citizens are choosing to offer up information online in order to voluntarily participate in the modern day panopticon does not disguise the fact that traditional eerie surveillance continues unabated, even without the knowledge of those being watched. Last week, I discovered a website,, that allows the user to find out whether their email has been compromised during a data breach, and eagerly filled in my two main email addresses. My college email remained unaffected, but my traditional email that has been with me since my youth did not escape so easily. In fact, not once but twice was this email account hacked and data released publicly. It was one of 593 million unique email accounts hacked from various systems in late 2016, and its bad luck continued just last month when malicious software exposed a large number of files containing private information. This time, 711 million accounts were affected. Yet I remained fully unaware that such information pulled from my email account – seven years of emails – could be used against my will. I change my password regularly and have up-to-date security software on my laptop. Online security has never been more of a concern as cyberattacks grow more and more popular. This time, I quickly altered my password to something very complicated full of numbers, letters and a few random symbols for extra safety. However, that is not enough against these powerful malware software programmes – a frightening concept.

Una, like many college students, has a part time job in a supermarket. The manager of this supermarket, however, was not like many others. He was more like Bentham, as he, without the knowledge of his many employees, installed video monitoring software throughout the branch. With the aid of a handy mobile app, it allowed him to monitor his workers wherever he was. Una recalls the time that they all believed that their manager was enjoying a break in sunny Spain when the phone rang. It was the all-seeing, all-knowing manager calling from across the continent, angrily informing the staff that one particular employee by the name of Tom needed to stop chatting and should complete his tasks at a faster pace. This was shocking to the assembled cohort in SuperValu that fateful day. As Una recalls experiencing the panopticon in all its glory, she admits that “it was strange. He didn’t trust us to do our work.”

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Although this was written in an era long before mobile phones, addictive apps and the various other devices deemed necessary nowadays, his words ring even more true today. Although the undeniable truth of life today is that constant observation is unavoidable and the panopticon is real, releasing ourselves more and more from the invisible chains of social media will lend a sense of freedom and emancipate users from the constant pressure of the imagined expectations of others online.

Illustration: Jenny Corcoran, Art Editor