On Foucault and Panopticism Today

by Carlotta Luciolli


In the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), Foucault reflects on the evolution of surveillance and discipline.  He identifies three historical stages of surveillance. Shifting from a focus on the body to the mind, the later stages are exemplified by the architectural form of the Panopticon and its subsequent internalisation by individuals. Closely linked to the evolution of technologies of surveillance, the Panopticon provides an ideal form of power based on the visibility of the individual and the invisibility/unverifiability of the authority figure.

I will start by providing a brief description of the Panopticon. I will then move on to analyse Panopticism in contemporary society at the national level. I argue panoptic states are still very much a reality and that they have kept expanding their invasiveness. Underlining the Panopticon’s pervasiveness, I move on to stress how Panopticism has entered different areas of our everyday lives through the medium of technologies.  Finally, I focus on the individual and self-regulation. By providing an alternative framework, I point out the individuals’ potential agency. I end by emphasising the Panopticon’s role as an image of ‘microphysics of power’ between two individuals.

On the Panopticon

In Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault presents Bentham’s architectural project for an ideal prison: the Panopticon. Wanting it to be as efficient as possible, the prison design allows a single guard to observe any inmate at any time. The term Panopticon, originating from Greek, was thus chosen as it literally means ‘sees all’. The guard would also be able to observe the inmates without them being able to verify if they are being watched. This would be possible by erecting a circular building organised around a tower. This peripheral building would be divided into individual cells. In the central tower would stand the guard. Through architectural tricks, Bentham ensured that while the inmates would always visible to the guard, the guard would never be visible to them. Thus, the simple threat of being observed would lead the inmate to regulate his own behaviour. “Visibility is a trap” (Foucault, 1977, p. 200) forced upon the inmate in this structure. Power is at all times visible (you can see the tower) and unverifiable (you do not know if you are being watched).

Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor; it is “the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form” (ibid., p. 205). The efficiency of this theoretical model lies in the fact that observation does not need to be constant for its effect to be permanent (ibid., p. 201). The example of the Panopticon as a prison showcases how an institutionalised form of power can use its authority to observe and regulate its subordinated individuals. This can in turn help us analyse surveillance under contemporary nation states and their effects on citizens.

The Panopticon and the State

Surveillance and policing are particularly relevant in the current state of ‘post-democracy’. According to Crouch (2004), current Western states are mostly post-democratic. They have been partially stripped of their democratic and welfare rights focus while acquiring a more prominent role as ‘policemen’. States have now increased their presence, regulate everyday lives and are becoming more and more intrusive. Examples given by Gill (1995) on the ‘Global Panopticon’ look at taxation and the use of integrated data-base systems. Systems such as social insurance numbers or credit-related data go beyond the simple, traditional idea of data collection from the state both in terms of the use of the data and of its origin. The state uses the data for a whole range of reasons such as criminal enforcement, policing and social control. Moreover, it gathers higher amounts of data to create integrated systems that can depict a very precise image of your life as an individual. As an example from personal experience, in Italy the codice fiscale (fiscal code) has to be used by citizens for healthcare and other state-related practices. However, it is also needed when buying a SIM card from a private corporation, letting the state link your personal identifiable number to technologies of potential surveillance.

With today’s technologies, the amount and scope of the data collected can reach enormous proportions. A current extreme example would be China’s implementation and ongoing development of a social credit system. In western democracies and around the globe, credit scores are frequent and are usually based on your financial history. On the other hand, Chinese citizens’ social credit score can be affected by actions as trivial as purchasing diapers or cheating while playing an online game (Marr, 2019). What your score affects is also different. ‘Financial’ scores worldwide affect the price of your insurance, how easily you can get a loan, etc. This can mean added difficulties to access healthcare in states like the US, as well as employers making a value-judgement on your trustworthiness based on your score (Gill, 1995, p. 20). Consequences of your social credit score are far larger and infringe more on the individual’s liberties and socialisation. A negative credit can lead to social marginalisation, an inability to travel abroad, as well as higher healthcare prices and waiting periods, amongst others.

The panoptic state is thus a reality in contemporary society, be it in democratic or authoritative nations. However, Foucault was far from arguing that Panopticism was specific to national institutionalised forms of power. As previously stated, the Panopticon serves as a diagram of the mechanism of power. It provides insight on the concept of power in every area of society, at every level.

Beyond the state level: the pervasiveness of Panopticism

Foucault was a post-structuralist. As such, he believed power was diffused and de-structured (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 386). He saw power as having polymorphous locations and believed Panopticism was destined to spread to the entirety of the social body (Foucault, 1977).

The pervasiveness of the panoptic schema is rendered possible by its efficiency and normalisation. The previous comes from the fact that the unverifiability of surveillance leads to it having a constant effect, independently of whether observation is discontinuous. The normalisation of Panopticism is explained by how technologies of surveillance are incorporated into routinised procedures (Appelrouth & Edles, 2011, p. 393). They are normalised by being presented as integral parts of the running of institutions. The incorporations of those elements and the unquestioning stance taken allows technologies of surveillance to be normalised. Moreover, the base of the information gathered on individuals by current technologies is our “everyday transactional activity” (Gill, 1995, p.20). New forms of surveillance can also be easily added since they usually do not feel intrusive. If cameras are added at your workplace, there will be no change in your everyday life. You might just feel some anxiety if you are aware of them and if they particularly affect you as an individual (ibid., p. 17).

A clear point that emerges is that new technologies play a very important role in surveillance. Even more so than when Foucault was writing, we are constantly potential objects of surveillance. This is partially explained by the booming of internet and ‘connected’ devices. Technologies intended to facilitate the public’s lives such as credit cards, phones, laptops, etc. were not born as technologies of surveillance. They however have what we could call a ‘surveillance-potential’. Through them, large amounts of data can be easily collected, stored, analysed, etc. What can be inferred from our data has also changed. The exponential growth in the quantity and quality of collectable data has been accompanied with the development of programmes and artificial intelligence capable to create a meaningful picture out of seemingly unimportant pieces of data (Albrechtslund & Ryberg, 2011).

This privacy problem is (somewhat) acknowledged by individuals and can lead to changed behaviour in order to avert surveillance. For example, protesters in Hong Kong in June 2019 were particularly wary of using their phones as well as their smart Octopus cards for travel and payment (Pringle, June 28, 2019). However, we are mostly unaware of how our information is or can be used. While individuals do self-regulate what they post on social media, the full scope of what can be inferred from their profiles and how it is used is largely unknown to them.

New artificial intelligence programmes have been designed to go through individuals’ entire social media presence and use it in work recruitment processes (Humantic). Since the information has been shared publicly, there is no legal need for companies that use those programmes to even warn candidates that their data is being analysed (at least outside of the EU). Surveillance and the manipulation of data thus go on both at the public and private level, and can affect your social, political and work life. This is made possible by the ever-increasing presence of new forms of technologies with the ability to constantly observe you, as well as inferring added information from the data it possesses. 

Art by Radu Carp

Panopticism and the individual(s)

An interesting concept present in both the Hong Kong and social media examples is self-regulation.  Self-regulation ties into Foucault’s concept of the ‘disciplinary individual’. The pressure and anxiety felt in the Panopticon lead to an inner regulation of the self, a form of self-induced complicity. The Panopticon is internalised, leading the individual to become the “principle of his own subjection” (Foucault, 1977, p. 201). This leads to the overall normalisation of behaviour across individuals.

This normalisation and self-regulation are readily apparent in the social media example. Individuals construct their own image online and frame it in accordance to the anxiety that rises from being observed. They showcase a highly constructed narrative made to fit societal expectations.

Objectification and anxiety as arising from the Other’s gaze is a concept present in both Foucault’s and Sartre’s work (Vaz, 1995). However, the idea of self-regulating objects seems somewhat illogical (Crossley, 1993). At the very least, it can not fully represent the individual’s position. While the process of self-regulation might originate from outside the individuals’ psyche, there is no evidence that when and how it is played out can’t be shaped by the individuals themselves. This leaves space to individuals’ agency to be exerted in some way. If we go back to the image of the Panopticon, inmates might not be able to exercise any agency on the existence of the internal window itself.

However, they can frame, shape and construct what is visible to the watcher. They can, in a certain sense, filter part of the information that is being analysed. If we go back to the social media example, not everyone has a post history that reflects the expectations of an ‘ideal life’. What different individuals take to mean an ‘ideal life’ is also not the same. More deeply than which information we decide to showcase, individuals’ decision to participate in social media is of interest. Social media is usually not a real necessity. While some would argue against this statement, the use of social media can often be considered a voluntary participation. The individual, especially if aware of the possibilities of data mining, is in this way willingly participating in the surveillance-ridden framework of social media.

The concept of ‘participatory surveillance’ resonates with this view. Albrechtslund and Ryberg (2011) present this notion in the context of the intelligent building (or smart house). While they approach this concept as designers, the framework of the intelligent building is interesting in relation to today’s society. The constant observation, invisibility of the technology and gathering of large amounts of data in the private sphere are all elements of the current panoptic society. Albrechtslund and Ryberg argue that we have an inadequate understanding of surveillance (ibid., p. 36). Rather than vertical, surveillance should be seen as a horizontal power relation between the watcher and the watched. In this case, the inhabitants of the intelligent building interact with the technology surrounding them. They are not simply passive but have an active role. Individuals thus have agency in surveillance, through their interaction and mutual relationship with technology. Albrechtslund and Ryberg maintain that how we perceive our data should also change. Rather than a commodity to be traded, it should be seen as a sharable source of empowerment and socialisation (ibid., p. 44).

Foucault’s figure of the Panopticon shows a weakness here. The image of the Panopticon rests on a duality between the person who is watched and the person that is watching. Even if we break the unidirectionality of this stare by putting them on the same horizontal level, a plurality of individuals difficultly fits this model. It is thus key to remember that the panoptic schema is only supposed to be about the ‘microphysics of power’ (Caluya, 2010, p. 625). Panopticism is still relevant in underlining the effects of visible and unverifiable surveillance on the individual. However, it is built around a metaphor of isolated inmates, alone in their opposition to an authoritative figure. This framework cannot account for the shared experiences of individuals in new figures of surveillance such as social media. It does though offer valuable feedback on the dynamics of power itself.

Art by Maria Impavidi


In a nutshell, I have presented Panopticisim at the national, intermediate and individual level. Currently, the Panoptic state seems to be in full expansion, relying on new technologies and large databases to achieve a diversity of political, economic and societal objectives. These technologies can be employed at every level of society, helping diffusing power and increasing the potential of constant surveillance.  This anxiety-laden environment can lead to the internalisation of the Panopticon by individuals. However, their passivity should not be overstated. Agency is possible even in compliant self-regulation. Moreover, it is important to remember that the Panopticon for Foucault is only a diagram of the ideal dynamics of power. It does not represent a perfect exemplification of society and life in it.

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