Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Panopticon's Changing Geography

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Panopticon's Changing Geography

Article excerpt

For 220 years the Panopticon has stood as the tangible symbol of total surveillance, discipline, and control. Always it has been the utopian dream of some and hellish nightmare of others. Its initial, architectural manifestation was promoted heavily in the late 1700s. Its pure form fizzled after a few decades but left an indelible mark on social practice and discourse. A second manifestation, "Big Brother," was feared intensely in the mid-twentieth century but later accepted in many places. It left such a powerful mark on public discourse that now merely saying its name is viewed as shameless fearmongering. Today, a third manifestation is quietly making a vigorous comeback--with little public reaction.

Since the mid-1970s, scholars of surveillance studies have insisted that the Panopticon should be taken not literally but as a metaphor for surveillance of all types, with emphasis on power relationships. In this article we revert to a literal interpretation and find it revealing. We examine the Panopticon's three physical manifestations, focusing on changing costs, geographical coverage, and benefits.

Empirically, we find that surveillance technology has advanced in three major spurts, each of which triggered a new episode. In the first instance the surveillance instrument was a specially designed building; in the second, a tightly controlled television network; and today, an electronic tracking service. Each had its own distinctive rationale: first the utopian perfection of society; second, enforcement of absolute tyranny; today, safety and security. Functionally, however, their root function is the same--total surveillance--and they are indeed three successive generations of Panopticons. We call them Panopticon I, II, and III.


More than two centuries ago the architect Samuel Bentham designed a building that was actually a surveillance machine. Its optics were such that a single "inspector" could observe every occupant simultaneously. The people being observed would be illuminated around the clock but could not see one another or their observer, not even his shadow. He called it the "Inspection House," or sometimes the "Elaboratory." His brother, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, wrote twenty-one letters promoting Samuel's invention as a technological fix for society: "Morals reformed--health preserved--industry invigorated[--]instruction diffused--public burthens lightened--Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock--the [G]ordian knot of the Poor-Laws ... untied--all by a simple idea in Architecture!" ([1787] 1995, preface). He called it the "Panopticon" (all seeing). It was, he said, "A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.... Such is the engine: such the work that may be done with it" ([1787] 1995, preface).

Thirty years ago the philosopher/historian Michel Foucault called it "a cruel, ingenious cage" (1995, 207). He viewed it as an instrument for enforcing discipline and punishment and a means of defining power relations in everyday lives.

In the public mind today, the Panopticon is inextricably linked with prisons, but the first and only true one was not a prison. It was a school of arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia (constructed in 1806), designed by Samuel Bentham. Certain aspects of his design were incorporated into many prisons around the world, including England's Millbank Penitentiary (1821) and the Virginia State Penitentiary (1800). In Pennsylvania the Western Penitentiary, near Pittsburgh (1826), adhered closely to Bentham's circular design and failed so utterly that it was razed only seven years later. The Eastern State Penitentiary, near Philadelphia (1829-1836), one of many that adopted a radial rather than circular design, was touted as the model prison of its day (Teeters and Shearer 1957; Johnston 1994).


When television came along in the 1940s, George Orwell imagined a new sort of electronic Panopticon that would be far less expensive to implement and would extend beyond buildings to streets and other public spaces ([1949] 1950). …

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