We have all likely heard of the panopticon. An architectural design of a prison, thought up by Jeremy Bentham, that was suppose to maximize surveillance capacities so that prisoners always felt as if they were being watched. Even when they weren’t. It consisted of prisons revolving around a central guard tower that could watch every move of every prisoner, all the time. However, the guard tower is made to be opaque—so the prisoners can’t watch the guards.
In 1975, Foucault borrowed this idea to illustrate his concept of disciplinary power in one of his most famous books—Discipline and Punish. The basic idea around Foucault’s use of the panopticon is that when people feel as if they are constantly being watched, they begin to self-discipline. The panopticon can refer to a prison. But it is meant to refer to society in general. Or many of the institutions in a society. The more people feel that they are being watched, the better they act. This watching could be through authorities, or even, your neighbors.
Though Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power is super important to many who study sociological theory—his example of the panopticon is overused and often misleading. It does not accurately represent the nature of surveillance in contemporary society.
The idea of the panopticon better characterizes a society of “total surveillance”. A completely, balls-to-the-walls, 1984, Big Brother-type (dys)utopia. Thankfully, there is currently no technology on earth that can allow for total surveillance. We may be a society of ubiquitous surveillance, but not a society of total surveillance.
So how do we “move beyond the panopticon”, as so many social and cultural theorists have been calling for? There is one useful theoretical framework that builds on Foucault’s work. This is the concept of the oliopticon. A concept that was proposed by Bruno Latour during his incredibly critical arguments of Reassembling the Social.
Latour criticizes Foucault for drawing up a total surveillance “utopia” that is made of “total paranoia and total megalomania”.
“We, however, are not looking for utopia but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see well…”
Latour is staunchly reminding us that something that is everything is nothing at all. The panopticon is made to be too perfect. It is made to see all. It’s something, that as academics, we can’t possibly empirically record or understand. But the oligopticon is the existence of countless scopes meant for watching. Countless surveillance devices. They only see everything together, but because they rarely communicate it could hardly be called “total surveillance”.
“From oligoptica, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possible—as long as connections hold. Nothing it seems can threaten the absolutist gaze of the panoptica, and this is why they are loved so much by the sociologist who dream to occupy the center of Bentham’s prison: the tiniest bug can blind oligoptica”.
However, this does not entirely rule out the panopticon. As Kitchin and Dodge in their book Code/Space assert, the power of codes and algorithms may some day be able to unite many of the streams of the oligoptica to create a menacing panoptic machine. However, due to the unstable nature of the practice of scripting code, running code, and working hardware—it is liable to bugs, errors, and absolute mutiny. So don’t hold your breath.
The panopticon, for now, has its place—but it’s a more appropriate theme for a science fiction novel than a good work of social science or philosophy. It serves as a powerful reminder of where a ubiquitous surveillance society could lead us, but not as a very good characterization of surveillance today.