Panopticon-like Society: A Dystopian Future


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

The Panopticon-like society was first conceived by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1791; it was his proposed design for a more efficient prison building. But, in 1975, the Panopticon was reintroduced to the public and academics by Michel Foucault, who expressed his worries about the dangers of a society with continual monitoring.

3D rendering of a giant surveillance camera spying on people.
If citizens are monitored continually, it means the denial of a fundamental human right—the right to privacy. (Image: Wit Olszewski/Shutterstock)

The Purpose of the Prison Building

The prison building itself would be circular, with prison cells all along a multistoried outside wall, all facing inward. In the center would be a round guard tower, looking outward, from which guards could closely observe any cell.

The guards would be obscured from the prisoners’ vision—by window blinds or other methods—so that the prisoners wouldn’t know when they were being watched. But they would know that they could be watched at any time. 

Bentham argued that, even though the prisoners knew that they couldn’t all be watched all the time, each individual prisoner would always think they were being watched—or at least suspect it—and thus regulate their own behavior. In this way, the good behavior of hundreds of prisoners could be ensured with only one guard—or even none.

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Foucault’s Concerns about Continual Monitoring

In 1975, the Panopticon was reintroduced to the public and academics by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish—a history of prisons in which Foucault argues for a reform of the penal system that had grown out of Bentham’s influence. 

Pair of security cameras on the fence that looks like human eyes watching.
Michael Foucault expressed concerns about how some societies would use continual monitoring of their citizens in the future. (Image: Robert David Hart/Shutterstock)

It’s part of a larger system aimed not at reforming prisoners but at the control of society—which it accomplishes by creating a ‘delinquent class’ that police have to monitor constantly. Foucault argues that the end result is that all of society is subjected to a Panopticon-like state of continual monitoring.

Foucault’s work was heavily criticized (he seemed to neglect other motivations the powers-at-be could have for imprisoning criminals), but his worries about a Panopticon-like society were actually anticipated by one of the most famous pieces of science-fiction ever written, George Orwell’s 1984, which has been reimagined cinematically many times.

Big Brother Is Watching

The book 1984 is set in a world in which a Stalinist totalitarian ‘Party’ has risen to power in the West. It follows the life of Winston Smith, who works for what is called the ‘Ministry of Truth’. There he rewrites history books to conform to the Party’s version of historical events, often erasing the existence of persons from history, thus making them ‘unpersons’.

The number 1984 written in yellow on a metal background.
Orwell’s 1984 follows a man named Winston who lives in a dystopian future and rewrites history to conform to the Party’s version of events. (Image: Emily Masi/Shutterstock)

Despite his job, Winston hates the Party, but he can never express his dissent aloud because the Party has created the impression that everyone is always being watched.

It’s believed that telescreens, which are everywhere (including people’s homes), are equipped with cameras and microphones; so ‘Big Brother’, the Party’s Leader, could be watching and listening at any time. 

Indeed, people are routinely arrested for ‘thought crimes’—expressing any thought that is contrary to the Party’s ideology—even when they do so in private. The result is a terrified public forever afraid to do anything but praise the Party and Big Brother.

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The Dangers of a Panopticon-like Society

1984 shows the dangers of a Panopticon-like existence. The first is that continual observation, and the constant threat of punishment, removes the possibility of virtuous behavior. For behavior to be truly virtuous, it must be done without compulsion—for its own sake. Someone should do good because it is good, not because they will be punished if they don’t.

This is a worry about Bentham’s Panopticon prison; it makes the rehabilitation of prisoners impossible because it removes the possibility of them learning to behave on their own. As soon as they are released back into society and the threat of observation is removed, they will go back to their old ways.

The second major worry about a Panopticon-like existence is the lack of privacy. Now, it’s often said that people shouldn’t worry about their privacy as long as they aren’t doing anything wrong. What have they got to hide? But there are a number of reasons to desire privacy, even if someone never does anything wrong. 

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The Right to Privacy

First of all, someone can never be sure that those watching them have the right definition of what counts as right behavior. In 1984, Winston was not doing anything immoral by writing down his grievances with the Party, yet he could not do so without fear. Even if the moral things someone wants to do are legal today, they may not be tomorrow.

Second, privacy seems to be a fundamental right. It seems that someone has a right to keep information about themselves private. It should be available only to those they choose and only in the manner in which they choose. 

Third, a functioning democracy requires privacy. Of course, there is a certain amount of privacy that must be given up—say, in public spaces—for a certain amount of security. But there are limits. A person must be free to keep their vote secret or anonymously call out corruption and injustice so as not to fear political retaliation. 

And fourth, the depth of a relationship is often defined by how much privacy the other person is allowed to violate. In fact, even in the deepest relationship, people still desire privacy. How could any relationship actually last at all if each person knew literally everything about the other? People just have too many dark little secrets.

Common Questions about a Panopticon-like Society

Q: What was the purpose of a Panopticon prison building?

The way the Panoptican prison was built for continual monitoring of prisoners, or at least that was what they were supposed to think. And Bentham argued this would lead to prisoners always being on their best behavior.

Q: What is the first major worry about a Panopticon-like society?

In a Panopticon-like society in which people are constantly monitored and there is constant threat of punishment, the possibility of virtuous behavior is removed. For behavior to be truly virtuous, it must be done without compulsion—for its own sake.

Q: What’s the point of privacy if someone isn’t doing something wrong or illegal?

In a Panopticon-like society, like in 1984, someone may do something that they don’t consider wrong, but the government does. Even if the moral things someone wants to do are legal today, they may not be tomorrow.

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