maanantai 18. lokakuuta 2010


Have you ever heard of a Panopticon? The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

See but can't be seen

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a military school in Paris designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived at it as a solution to the complexities involved in the handling of large numbers of men. Bentham supplemented this principle with the idea of contract management; that is, an administration by contract as opposed to trust, where the director would have a pecuniary interest in lowering the average rate of mortality.The Panopticon was intended to be cheaper than the prisons of his time, as it required fewer staff. As the watchmen cannot be seen, they need not be on duty at all times, effectively leaving the watching to the watched. According to Bentham's design, the prisoners would also be used as menial labour walking on wheels to spin looms or run a water wheel. This would decrease the cost of the prison and give a possible source of income.

The Picture of a Panopticon Prison

From prison to society

Bentham’s Panopticon model was invoked by a French philosopher, sociologist and historian Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham's Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault's famous analysis of it.

Foucalt noticed that prisons and workplaces resemble each other, because they are manifestations of a same method of control and surveillance, “methods of surveillance and correction” have become “techniques of managing” and the origin of the organizational solutions has been forgotten. In Foucalt's view Panopticon is an architectural and social innovation of a prison in which a central “eye” watches over individual cells, individual cells are made visible with the help of light, inmates are “seen” but cannot see the “eye” and one-way visual contact, which means the awareness of surveillance.

Not control itself, but the feeling of control

The whole idea of this concept is the notion that people are not managed by control, but by the feeling of control. It is in human minds. People act better when they are not controlled, but they feel they might be controlled. Control causes resistance, but the feeling of the possibility that someboby may be watching makes people act in a better way. There are several examples how you can see this phenomenon in today's society. Let me give you some:
  1. Open offices: take a look at the trend of todays work places, open offices. In open offices you are not necessarily watched, but all the time you have the feeling that you might be watched. I can imagine that there might be a kind of “Big Brother” feeling in the open office. Someone might see, what I’m doing and I might get caught, so it’s better to give my utmost for the company. Actually, several famous headquarters are designed with the same model as Panopticon.
  2. Big Brothers: Television is nowadays full of reality tv series. Why? Well, because people are curious to watch each other. To be a Big Brother, to watch other people, but not be watched yourself is exciting for most of the people. Frankly, when it comes to people taking part in Big Brother, I'm not so sure how controlled people they are...
  3. Video surveillance and mystery guards: CCTVs and video surveillance in public spaces have increased rapidly. Not all cameras are actually watched, but the possibility that there might be a camera watching me reduces some people's willingness to commit a crime. In Finland, overspeeding in traffic is nowadays controlled automatically by cameras. It's funny to notice how people usually brake when they notice a camera box, because there might be an actual camera within. Some shops have replaced visible guards with the sign "We use mystery guards". This means that instead of visible guards there might be a mystery guard among customers who watch other customers and act in the case a problem occurs.

Panopticon and Ownership

When it comes to my studies, I immediately noticed that in Panopticon the owners would be in the middle of the building. Because of the light, the workers couldn’t see if the owners were present or not and whether they were controlled or not. The possibility that owners might watch them, keeps people working properly. I guess this is also reality, not perhaps in physical sense, but as a metaphoric. In an industrial era, it was typical that patrons, who owned factories, took a walk in the factory hall and it was always a pressure for the workers when they saw a patron approaching. Some owners of family businesses still highlight the importance of visibility. They call this method “leading by walking”, which means that it is important for the culture of the company that the owner is seen often at the workplace and he or she knows his workers personally. It is also said, but not reseached, that people are more motivated to work for an owner they know than to unknown owner like markets. I don't know wheter this is true or not, but anyway most of the biggest companies in the world have no visible owners present. Instead there are a group of analysts and a crowd of investors watching the performance of the company. If we take Nokia for example, there is no visible owner in the house, instead Nokia is owned by the markets, as ex-CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo once said.

Someboby's watching me

Fitting into this theme, here is a great cover of Warmen, a kind of a side project of my favourite band Children of Bodom. You never know, there might be somebody watching you right now...

Some questions to be thought
  1. Does visible ownership matter? Do you work harder, if you know the owner of the company compared to unknow owners like markets?
  2. Does leading by walking make sense?
  3. Do you feel you are watched? Who is watching you? How?
  4. Do you prefer control or the possibility of being controlled?

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