By coincidence I recently came across the same piece of information from two different sources within a few hours which changed the way I thought about a concept with which I thought I was pretty familiar. Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.


Jeremy Bentham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The panopticon was an, unrealised, prison designed in such a way that the prisoners are kept in cells around the edges of a circle with a guard’s tower in the centre. This design would enable the guard to easily see into any of the cells but crucially the prisoners would never know if they were being watched so would have to act as if they were all the time. The panopticon, largely through its analysis by Michel Foucault, has come to be considered as emblematic of surveillance and disciplinary societies in general.

In David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years and in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week in a comment by Philip Schofield  (no, not that one) it was highlighted that Jeremy Bentham got the idea for his prison when visiting his brother Samuel’s workshop in Crimea. Samuel Bentham had constructed his workshop in such a fashion that he could sit in the middle while his employees worked all around him.

Jeremy Bentham took this idea and applied it to the prison but central to his purpose was not surveillance merely for the purposes of good behaviour but, like Samuel, to ensure that work was being performed. Idleness was the real scourge of the prisoner, for Bentham, and it was occupation that would enable people to emerge from prison as upstanding citizens.

Something else which is often overlooked is that he was a proponent of transparency and also proposed that the public should be allowed into prisons to observe the guards. He would,  I assume, be appalled by the kind of opaque surveillance to which the name of his invention has been applied.

It is perhaps easy to overlook the extent to which work and surveillance are intertwined.The target of surveillance is not just the minimization of bad behaviour but also to ensure we are busy. This is true outside of prisons as well. Those who are not performing “busyness” in a city street quite quickly draw attention. Homeless people are frequently asked to “move along” by the police or security workers but if anyone were to stand still in the middle of a busy street they would quickly draw attention.