Panopticon: What’s in the name?

Google search the word ‘panopticon’ and you will find a large range of websites, videos, and blogs as diverse as the colours of the rainbow. The word seems to be living a life of its own and stretches from its core – a prison model – as far as a knitting blog (see a beautiful example below). How is the name ‘Panopticon’ used in different contexts and more importantly, how are they different from the original meaning?

laura-aerial-detail_mediumPlacing knitting advise under the name of Panopticon seems farfetched and the author’s explanation (people can read the entries, the author can spy on the reader) definitely is. The definition of the Panopticon brought down to secret spying is too simplified and misleading. The workings of the Panopticon is one way, not two ways, and a consequential power relation of the viewer over the viewed is crucial.

From the one end of the knitting paradise, the other end of the Panopticon definition spectrum are the many online sites related to surveillance. Coming close to the semantic origin, the overarching view here is the Panopticon as the little sister of Big Brother. Various articles use the panopticon as an explanation of the working of CCTV (such as this article on the ‘Cam Era’ or this one on Mexico City’s surveillance centre,) and so they stay close to the latin origin of the word Panopticon: παν- or pan- (all) and -οπτικος or opticon (seeing). With CCTV, the power relation is clear as the viewer cannot be viewed and the subject never knows if s/he is being observed at a particular moment. The consequence of this singular observation is that people assume they are being watchedcctv, that there is a high chance they are being watched or that their behaviour is recorded. Regardless of an active viewer, a camera will influence people’s behaviour – according to meta-analysis research it effectively deters crime – and thus a power relation is established.

Camera surveillance is just one example of surveillance. This documentary (in Dutch only, sorry) by Peter Vlemmix titled ‘Panopticon’ shows the various ways people are being watched by governments and private companies. While focussing mainly on data privacy, the film properly explains the possible power position of the panopticon (the viewer) and consequently the dangers for the subject (the one being viewed). Interestingly enough, when it comes to data surveillance, people are largely unaware of the ways their actions are observed and their data is collected. The observation is singular, without interaction, but unknown. Unlike with CCTV, you might not change your behaviour because of the possibility you are being watched, but the observer still has the possibility to actively influence your choices.

Similarly close on the spectrum of Panopticon definitions to its origin, are Google search results on prison games. Different forms of prison games – on your PC or with a Virtual Reality headset – let you take control of a prison. Combining the original Panopticon structure with the idea of digital surveillance, these games allow you to experience the power structure from the position of the Panopticon’s agent. There are also real life escape games and in this case you are turned into the subject of power.

Nonetheless, the search results that made my nerdy heart pound faster were those on related to research. The Digital Panopticon is an online research project by various UK and one Australian university on historic crime data. Combining digital research methods and genealogical crime records such as The Old Bailey, they explore new ways of analysing old data. However, the website does not explain its name and I can only assume it was chosen to cover a project that aims to see all there is to see about punishment a couple of centuries ago. It is interesting, but is it panopticism?

And then there is also the Bentham Project by UCL; a wonderful research project that aims to produce new editions of the works by philosopher and inventor of the Panopticon prison, Jeremy Bentham. Along the way, they have created amazing features such as a game (yes, the one mentioned before), a crowdsourcing project, and the Panopticam. The latter is a hidden camera installed above (parts of) Bentham’s remains at the UCL that films its by-passers. Although the last image seems to date from February 2016, the cam is supposed to publish a live stream and generate a time lapse video. In this way, the deceased Bentham is generating an all seeing eye over its subjects. The webcam even started a modest viral joke: researcher Rodrigo Firmino started ‘talking’ to Bentham by holding up a sign in front of the cam.


Our trip on the internet has taken us from a knitting spy via a paranoia film maker and a real life escape gamer to a dead man’s live stream. A first conclusion to draw is that the Panopticon is a popular term and understood in different ways. The articles and video on surveillance use the term appropriately but connote an evil and suppressive institution. The prison games set a context and environment and offer the gamer to experience the power relation. The research project on the other hand seem to use the Panopticon as a source of inspiration, just like this page. But what all these pages have in common, is that by surfing around the internet, I have made myself unknowingly and possibly unwillingly to be the subject of the online panopticon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s