What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.

This lecture is in two parts. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

Related Projects

– Computer Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
Essay on Problems with the Panopticon Design
View Panopticon Model in Virtual Reality

Computer Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon


“To say all in one word, [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think,
without exception, to all establishments whatsoever”

– Jeremy Bentham


Since the 1780s, hundreds of articles discuss Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. But, no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham gives in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to create an open source, virtual reality computer model of the panopticon.

Below, you can view the animation about this structure. Visit this link to view the panopticon in virtual reality. Or click here to download and edit my model (requires Sketchup).



Transcription of audio narration:

The panopticon is the form of the ideal prison, designed around 1787 by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Over 300 prisons around the world follow this model:

  1. A circle of diameter 100 feet
  2. Around the perimeter of this circle stretch cells
  3. Each cell is 9 feet deep
  4. And 48 per floor
  5. Each cell has a toilet, a bed, and space to work
  6. The cells rise six floors

On every other floor, there is a surveillance corridor, in which a guard may survey two floors of prisoners. The guard watches the prisoners. But the prisoners do not see the guard and do not know when they are watched. And must therefore act as if they were always watched. Three guards each see 96 prisoners, which makes 288 prisoners total.

In the center of the space, there is an auditorium, in which the prisoners may assemble to be lectured. A wall of screens may rise surrounding the chapel. And separating the prisoners from seeing into it, or from seeing each other from across the void of the empty space in middle.

Spiral staircases ascend through the space. And an iron and glass frame rises through the space and vaults over the chapel.

This completes the panopticon, the form of the ideal prison.


Related Projects

– Computer Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
Essay on Problems with the Panopticon Design
View Panopticon Model in Virtual Reality



Supervised by Max Sternberg
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound
The archives and publications of the UCL special collections

The Panopticon: A Problem of Definition


A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Prisons serve as a clear example.

Erving Goffman, Asylums1


1. Introduction and Method


The panopticon is now a theoretical design, a symbol of surveillance and state power. The building’s inventor, Jeremy Bentham, claims it is a perfect building and a total institution that cares for and controls all aspects of its inhabitants’ lives. No panopticon was built to Bentham’s exact instructions. We have little evidence from Bentham to verify or falsify the architecture’s claim to total vision and total power. However, Eastern State Penitentiary, built 1829 in Philadelphia, follows Bentham’s model and is the prototype for over three hundred radial prisons around the world. By analyzing the shortcomings of the panopticon as proposed (by Bentham) and as realized (in Philadelphia), and by situating the panopticon in the broader critique of total institutions and the virtual Internet we can, indirectly, assess how the panopticon’s form (and means of attaining power) evolved to the present-day. We can also use this historical lens to assess the strength of the contemporary analogy that the Internet perfects the panopticon’s surveillance mechanism.

Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to create an open source, virtual reality computer model of the panopticon. Essay illustrations are from this model. This model allows us to interrogate this total institution’s design.


Computer Animation of the Panopticon

Play the video below. Or click here to view more details about this model and to download it to your computer.



The Panopticon in Virtual Reality




Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) designed the panopticon c.1789. Panopticon comes from Greek: pan (all) + opticon (seeing) = all-seeing. Bentham describes how this architecture monitors and reforms souls in his series of 21 letters entitled Panopticon: The Inspection House. He commissioned architect Willey Reveley c.1791 to draw the panopticon’s plan and section (fig.1-2).2 These images still circulate. Today, the panopticon has evolved from prison design to symbol of the surveillance state. No structure was ever built to Bentham’s exact instructions. It remains a perverse, dream building.

Bentham’s proposal is simple: a 100-foot-diameter round room. There are perimeter cells (H in fig.2). Each cell is for one prisoner. Each cell is identical to all others with toilet, bed, sink, and workspace. By day, natural light filters through the window behind each prisoner. By night, searchlights illuminate the interior. In the centre, there is a tower from which guards (standing in corridors marked D) survey all surrounding cells (marked H). The tower’s one-way blinds allow guards to look out (fig.3), but prohibit prisoners from looking in (fig.4). Bentham claims one guard can survey everything with one sweep of the eye. One-way visibility allows guards watch inmates without their knowledge. Thus, the prisoner must always guard his actions because he does not know when he is watched. Lateral walls between cells are supposed to prohibit prisoners from seeing each other and planning a joint escape.3



The panopticon, this incident in the social history of architecture, is a philosopher’s utopian project. The panopticon workhouse reflects Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism and efficient labour. Each prisoner, working in his cell, is monitored from a distance. Prisons are, more than many structures, inseparable from systems of justice, power, and punishment. The panopticon also reflects a larger historic event. Bentham wrote his panopticon letters in 1789. This was the same year French revolutionaries were dreaming of a new nation and new political system to rationally structure society, based on equality instead of privilege.4 Bentham advertised his building as a prison and educational institution, as noble in its ends as the hospitals and schools he also designed on the circular surveillance model. Bentham had every intention to build an actual panopticon. To this end, “a proposal made to the newly established Paris National Assembly, through Brissot, was warmly and gratefully received. Bentham suggested that the revolutionary government hand the management of the enormous Bicêtre Hôpital Genéral with its 3,850 patients and prisoners over to him.”5 After trying and failing for twenty years to receive funding from the English Parliament to build his panopticon for 288 prisoners and at least three guards in Battersea, London, Bentham abandoned the project.


2. Design Flaws with Proposed Panopticon


We must question whether Bentham’s architecture functions as he claims. Prisoners must be visible in Bentham’s plan. Although the panopticon is six floors high, a guard standing at the ground floor could not see six stories up (fig.5). The photo at left shows the guard’s point of view standing at the ground floor. The photo is from my computer simulation. The guard sees into the ground floor cells. But above the second floor, the passages, stairways, and steep angle obscures all visibility of prisoners.

Recognising this problem, Bentham placed surveillance corridors at every other floor. This produced three, independent areas. Figure 6 shows each guard’s cone of vision. But, this solution is self-defeating. If the panopticon is round to permit everything to be seen from the centre, and there is no centre, then why continue to have a round structure?



Figure 7 is a 180° panorama from the guard’s viewpoint. From any angle, the guard can see into no more than eight cells. The rest are made invisible by odd angles and poor optics (fig.8). To survey, the guard must walk circles (fig.9). Bentham describes three guards surveying 288 prisoners. If each of the three guards only sees eight cells at a time and is continuously walking, then only 24 inmates (3×8) out of 288 are visible at any inmates, about 8% of inmates.


Fig.7: Panorama from Surveillance Corridor



The circle implies forceful vision from centre to perimeter. But blind spots and poorly angled blinds might allow prisoners to guess when they were watched, defeating the architecture’s self-regulatory mechanism.6 According to Ivan Manokha:

Bentham’s Panopticon had an important flaw, namely, the possibility that the watched might one day try to find out whether they are indeed being watched. An inmate could hazard, entirely at random, a minor pardonable transgression; if this transgression goes unnoticed, then he could commit another, this time more serious, transgression.7

The leading English prison reformer John Howard also disliked the panopticon’s poor ventilation, “By condensing the prison back into a single enclosed volume, salubrity had been sacrificed to surveillance.”8 During this time, reformers discouraged self- contained and compact prison design (like the panopticon) in favour of spreading the cells over a larger area for better ventilation and light. Another, more serious flaw, is that Bentham provides no way to stop sound from travelling. He opens the interior to light, air, and visibility, but at the expense of sound. Circular interiors have echoing qualities that permit sound to travel farther. Unless prisoners cannot speak, sound will travel; they will communicate. Bentham rarely mentions in his 21 letters over 50 pages any means to muffle sound. The panopticon seems to sacrifice acoustics for visual surveillance.


3. Design Flaws with Panopticon as Built


Bentham’s ideas, however flawed, influenced the American Quakers, who were among America’s first prison reformers and shared Bentham’s belief in the redemptive power of solitary confinement. The first (or at least the first popular) translation of Bentham’s ideas into architecture was Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. This model proved popular in Europe and influenced numerous English prisons, starting with HMP Pentonville in 1842 and lasting until WWI. Three hundred prisons built between 1800 and 1880 followed this plan.





In response to observations that the panopticon lacked good ventilation, Haviland converted Bentham’s circle into the radial prison. He displaced the cells into corridors, and then arranged corridors around a central point, like spokes on a wheel. This system improved circulation and gave each prisoner more space (fig.10). Central heating and internal plumbing in each cell ensured prisoners never needed to leave solitary confinement. This new system allowed prisoners to be “inserted in a fixed placed,”10 to borrow a phrase from Foucault.

In the centre, stood a guard tower, analogous to Bentham’s tower. From this place, guards observed some of the exercise yards. Only the tops of the cells and roofs were visible, but never prisoners in their cells and exercise yards. Figure 11 shows the tower’s limited cone of vision. Invisible areas are shaded black. Years later, due to blind spots, this tower was rebuilt ~30 feet higher to command a better view.


Fig.11: Guard Tower Blind Spots


Perhaps, the guard is symbolically but not actually all-seeing. Guards later installed a clock on the tower, as if to remind prisoners of who gave and took time from their lives. Bentham’s guard tower seems analogous to Eastern State Penitentiary’s, both visually commanding yet both incapable of actual, all-powerful vision.

Despite the circular form, surveillance was not continuous. The guards had to walk through the corridor, with padded shoes to muffle footsteps, and open the peephole into each cell, one by one, to check on prisoners. Surveillance was discontinuous. But, it was the isolation that controlled. Thick walls muffled sound and sight, but at the expense of total vision of each prisoner from a central point. Bentham’s visual surveillance and Foucault’s concept of inmate self-regulation were not quite as visible here as in the original panopticon. Instead, “it was the isolation of the person, the total distance from others, that would serve to control.”11

The similarities between the panopticon as proposed and as built are limited. The general circular form survives, but the hundreds of details Bentham describes are not followed: none of the cell dimensions he gives, the staircases, surveillance corridors, the edifice’s size, and prisoner numbers. It is the theory of inmate self-regulation and the circular form that survive more than Bentham’s particularities. Unlike the panopticon, which aspired to be a prototype for all manner of institutions, Eastern State Penitentiary operated as the model prison but not as a model for other institutions like hospitals. The panopticons as built, in other words, are scaled-down and less culturally ambitious versions of the original proposal.


Eastern State Penitentiary in Virtual Reality


Bentham and Haviland were trying to imagine a form of prison architecture fit for this new democracy. If the punishment must fit the prisoner, if the system makes no distinctions for prisoner class and wealth, if guards must know at every moment the activity of every inmate, then the architecture must breathe the principle that the law is “the same for all.” Each cell in Bentham and Haviland’s world was identical to all others: 6 feet wide, 9 feet deep, and 8 feet high.

As of 1829, the most expensive structure built, the most technically complex, and the largest in America’s 200 year history was not a palace, senate house, or theatre. It was a prison. It was Eastern State Penitentiary. This fact speaks to the builders’ aspiration to embed symbolism into the prison. The Philadelphia Prison Society describes: “This penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe.”12

Among tourists and schoolchildren who visited after the opening, the usual response was admiration and support for solitary confinement. Among the supporters was Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, where he spent two weeks interviewing prisoners.13 In his resulting report On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, he describes the supposed benefits of total isolation on prisoners’ health and preparation to rejoin society.14

Not all visitors saw solitude as a positive. Charles Dickens visited America for six months in 1842. In 1850, he published American Notes for General Circulation. Judging by the number of pages he spends describing Eastern State Penitentiary, what impressed him most during his travels was not this democracy’s government, cities, or landscapes, but its largest prison. Dickens condemns solitary confinement:

Very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. […] I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.15

In the job of making prisons feel penitence through isolation, Eastern State Penitentiary failed. By depriving convicts of all human contact, the solitary system did not address the antisocial personality that brought him to prison. Prison reports estimate upwards of 10% of the inmates went “insane” during their confinement. About a quarter of black inmates died during confinement, and the architecture proved unhealthy due to poor ventilation, fumes from the coal furnace entering cells, and malnutrition.16 Dickens mourns released prisoners. The ex-convict stumbles down the street, blinded by all sensory activity and sound. From years in confinement, he has trouble speaking. His words become stunted and halting; his eyes glaze over and become windows into unspoken pain.

Ideally, the effects of solitary should be so permanent, so debilitating, and so forceful that the inmate retains feelings of “permanent visibility” long after leaving prison. In the free world, they continue to act as if they were watched, even though they are no longer watched. However, 1960s sociologist Erving Goffman catalogued the relationship between inmates and medics over three years he worked in an asylum. He concluded the effects of rehabilitation were only limited and passing. The institution may reset the inmate’s personality and teach the inmate behaviour that aligns to socially acceptable norms. But, once they leave and are re-exposed to the comforts, temptations, and randomness of the outside world, the asylum’s lessons are soon lost.17 The “perfection of power” within the total institution might cause the inmate to self-regulate his behaviour, but only so long as he is in the institution. Alternatively, even permanent change might not be of the kind intended by staff. Think of Dicken’s inmates stumbling down the street. In contrast to Goffman’s empirical observations of actual inmates, Foucault dubiously claims the panopticon’s effects are permanent:


The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.18


James Scott pushes the critique of total institutions, like prisons, still further, when he writes: “No administrative system is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematised process of abstraction and simplification. […] State agents have no interest—nor should they—in describing an entire social reality.”19 Scott’s hypothesis is that states, throughout history, tried to control their people through large-scale architectural, legal, and social institutions. These efforts included, for instance, land collectivization under Communism, urban renewal projects in American cities, and scientific forestry in Germany. In each instance, Scott identifies how, despite different geography, time, and political systems, these efforts always fail and for the same reason: Reality is too complex, too diverse, and too evolving for man-made systems to capture and control. Scott never mentions prisons or failed state efforts to control through prisons. But, we can apply this theme to prison design. For instance, a recent literature review of the panopticon cites how we should neither speak of the panopticon in generalities nor take Bentham at face value when he claims his structure has universal use:


Theoretical accounts often talk in abstract entities (‘institutions’, ‘the government’, ‘networks’, ‘the market’). These entities are described as invisible forces exercising power over subjects. This perspective often ignores any form of situatedness, context or the specificities of surveillance technologies and practices.20


As an example of this failure to ground the panopticon in specifics, Bentham speaks of schools, hospitals, and asylums as abstract entities, where watching people, instead of caring for their mental and physical health, is of primary importance. This is problematic because both prisons and hospitals are concerned with different kinds of surveillance. Foucault and Bentham are right these are “disciplinary” institutions. Both doctors and jailers must establish “security.” Doctors keep the patients secure from disease. Jailers keep the public secure from the inmates. As applied to prisons and hospitals, security has in fact two opposite, even conflicting, meanings.

Although Bentham claims the panopticon is equally suited for prisons and asylums, the architectural form of prisons and asylum did not converge in the nineteenth century. They diverged. Most prisons followed Eastern State Penitentiary with radiating wings from central point (fig.12). Windows improved circulation but encouraged escape and communication with outsiders. So, in the interest of security over comfort, cell windows were small and inaccessible. By contrast, most asylums and hospitals followed the Kirkbride Plan for better views and air circulation (fig.13). Thomas Kirkbride, a doctor turned architect, invented the architectural template most nineteenth century American hospitals follow. The hospital wings, instead of clustered around a single point like radial prisons, were distributed over larger areas. This maximized airflow and inmate views of nature. As part of the “rest cure” and tuberculosis treatment, patients were placed on open terraces with good views.21



After the French and American Revolution, these new democracies required new institutions: the congress hall, records office, hospital, prison, asylum, and university. Institutions, formerly the responsibility of private initiative and charity, were increasingly seen as democracy’s duty to care for the poor, educate the middle class, and regulate trade. Industrialists built railroads and factories; both required custom and highly specific architectural typologies. All these institutions, no matter how varied in purpose, share one quality in common: specific and niche institutional demands. The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in buildings of diverse function, style, and appearance.22 Bentham’s panopticon sits at the edge of this moment. There is tension here. Bentham speaks of the panopticon as the ideal architectural form applicable “to all establishments whatsoever” at the very moment in time institutional forms were splintering away from a single prototype.


4. Evolution of the Panopticon’s Meaning


Early prison designers like Bentham and contemporary philosophers both speak of panopticons. However, contemporary use this word in an abstract and symbolic way that Bentham and his contemporaries did not.

Although the panopticon is now a theoretical design and symbol of surveillance, it began as a proposal for an actual prison. Bentham had every intention to build it with himself as prison master. So, when Bentham writes that:


The panopticon will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection. […] No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry.23


He means this literally. The panopticon could physically be employed in all manner of circular buildings: prisons, hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and schools. And, for most of its 200-year history, the panopticon operated as physical model for prisons. Only in the late twentieth century was the panopticon re-interpreted from physical model for actual buildings into theoretical model for the surveillance state. I consulted several hundred papers on panopticons. And I have found none from before the 1970s that speaks of the panopticon as an analogy and symbol for something other than institutional architecture.

This shift toward abstraction began with Michel Foucault’s 1975 book, Discipline and Punish. In the chapter entitled “Panopticism,” he compares the surveillance schemes of medieval towns under quarantine against disease, with Bentham’s panopticon, and then with the modern nation state, tracing analogous control mechanisms across time. Foucault applies Bentham’s line that the panopticon is “applicable…to all institutions whatsoever” to institutions that were not fully formed at the time of Bentham’s writing, such as the modern hospital, police station, and modern prison. At the same, the Internet was introduced and spread rapidly in the 1980s. At time of writing, Foucault seems unaware of this technology, or its latent possibility to perfect surveillance. Discipline and Punish does not mention platforms, like Facebook, that give news, information, and entertainment while harvesting users’ personal information and using this information to manipulate user behaviour for profit. Both Goffman and Foucault were writing before the Internet revolution, and could not have factored in the Internet’s effects into their critique.


Fig.14: A few stock photo representations of the Internet.


Yet, for all the Internet’s power, the public cannot visualise: What does the Internet look like? People frequently represent the Internet as a series of connected dots, or speak of this abstract and ethereal thing called “the cloud.” The stock photos above are a few from online. The variety of things the Internet could be (connected dots, clouds, circles, a spider’s web) encompass a range of forms which begs the question: How can the Internet be all this at once? In this information and knowledge vacuum, Bentham’s building seems to represent and visualize this network in more concrete terms than “the cloud.” While the visual representations above are vapid and not politically charged, the panoticon image is a more powerful metaphor and hints at the darker possibilities of Facebook’s mission statement: “Bring the world closer together.”

Foucault’s writings and the rise of the Internet prompted a renewed interest in the panopticon. They also signal this linguistic shift from panopticon (a physical space) to panopticism (a philosophy, theory, and –ism). The word panopticism does not appear in any printed text before Discipline and Punish in 1975. When we speak of panopticons, we need to speak of two waves in thinking: the first wave was from 1787 to c.1870 and the second from 1975 to the present. During this first period, the panopticon operated as a physical institution and prototype for designing actual structures. In the second and contemporary period, the panopticon operates more as theory and abstraction of power relationships. Figure 15 is from Google Ngram, an online search engine that charts the frequency by year (x-axis) of word use (y-axis) in the 30 million books Google Books scanned from 1800 to 2008. This is not an entirely scientific measurement as not all books were scanned, but the general sweep of the graph loosely follows what I observe in the literature.




5. Conclusion


The panopticon sits on an uncomfortable edge between dream and reality. The structure is now a dream. But this dream was powerful enough to influence prison reformers and actual buildings. Yet, not one of these buildings follow Bentham’s exact instructions, allowing their shortcomings to be chalked up to a failure to follow Bentham closely enough rather than innate flaws in total institutions. The moment total institutions are built, they become victim to decay due to design, materials, and time. Foucault can claim the panopticon “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power”24 so long as he ignores problems with actual panopticons: complaints from prison wardens, records from frustrated Parliament, or evidence of prisoner escapes from supposedly perfect and all-seeing radial prisons.

The constant threat facing total institutions, like prisons and asylums, is that inmates will try to subvert, undermine, destroy, or escape from the architecture of their confinement. Total institutions are designed with walls and bars to be difficult to destroy and attack. The Internet is also a total institution; it is total in the sense that it is mobile bank, department store, library, television, movie theatre, and social space wrapped into one device.

For all its power, the Internet relies on visible architecture. When we store data on “the cloud,” what we are really doing is storing our information on someone else’s server. The data from my laptop travels by WiFi signal to the nearest router, and from there it is whisked along at light speed through buried cables to a data centre that could be thousands of miles away. The data centre is a room full of servers, small computers stacked on each other like shelves in a warehouse. The space can be as small or as large as the number of clients it serves. Servers can fit into almost any type of building shape and size, as long as the location is secure, free from floods, and has reliable electricity. In contrast to the non-descript architecture of a data centre, driving by a prison or hospital, the exterior looks like a prison or hospital and conforms to certain expectations we have.25 The server, this backbone of the Internet and its control mechanism, is malleable and usually safely distanced from the people whose lives it effects. While a local jail and hospital must be near the catchment area in which inmates are caught, the Internet’s infrastructure can be anywhere. The U.S. government can, for instance, record people’s phone activity in Iraq, store and process the information in its Utah Data Center, and then pass judgments on whom to arrest in Washington D.C. In this distancing of server architecture from victim might exist the Internet’s strength, and by extension the panopticon’s strength. Unlike other total institutions, the Internet seems less “architectural.” Does this immunize it from the blind spots and design problems plaguing other types of institutional architecture?

Panopticon is a problematic word. In theory, scholars use the term, beyond prisons, to describe a diverse range of buildings, institutions, governments, and now the Internet. These are all “panopticons.” But, in practice, these different and so-called “panopticons” do not have much in common beyond their general circular form. Both prisons and hospitals are concerned with power relations, surveillance, and control. But “panopticon” does not articulate specific institutional demands or the fact that control (and control mechanisms) look different across institutions.

The guiding principle of Foucault’s panopticism is as follows: Because inmates do not know when they are watched, they must act as if they were always watched. They therefore self-regulate their activity and follow rules, even if there is nobody watches them and punishes them for breaking rules. But on visual analysis of how the panopticon would have appeared if built, the built panopticon does not perfectly embody the principles of panopticism. Firstly, inmates are not passive objects and will communicate with each other across Bentham’s open spaces. Secondly, inmates can and will try to find out when they are watched by exploiting blind spots and faults in the architecture. Thirdly, there is no guarantee inmates will continue to self-regulate behaviour after they leave prison and are no longer under fear of surveillance.

Both terms – panopticon (the building) and panopticism (the theory) – seem to describe total institutions like prison and the Internet. But, both the building and the theory are too broad and too expansive. Panopticism ignores specific institutional needs and habits. Saying panopticism describes modern surveillance is like saying “connectivity, power relations, or fear of punishment describe modern life.” This statement does not push for any specific positive outcome and could imply all manner of surveillance and nastiness. Panopticism does not offer insight unique to a particular era or to a specific total institution. In the Middle Ages, God-fearing people self-regulated sinful thoughts and behaviour, too. The panopticon building, from which panopticism originates, is too broad as a general template for almost every institutional building. The fact that, 200 years later, the only structures to consciously follow this architectural model are prisons (and a few hospitals) might speak to this template’s more limited application in practice.26

How does the Internet change our critique of total institutions? As the internet becomes more complex and more invasive, is it time for a new paradigm to visualize and describe surveillance?




  • Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon: The Inspection House. Whithorn: Anodos Books (2017).
  • Comte Gustave de Beaumont, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Francis Lieber (translator). “Inquiry into the Penitentiary of Philadelphia” and “Penitentiary System of Pennsylvania.” In On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard (1833), 187-198 and 287-301.
  • Dickens, Charles. “Chapter VII: Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison.” In American Notes for General Circulation. London: Chapman and Hall (1850), 67-77.
  • Evans, Robin. “A way of obtaining power.” In The fabrication of virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1982), 195-235.
  • Evans, Robin. “Bentham’s Panopticon: An Incident in the Social History of Architecture.” Architecture Association Quarterly, no. 3, spring 1971.
  • Furlong, Gillian. “Designs for a Panopticon Prison by Jeremy Bentham: Section of an Inspection House; Plan of Houses of Inspection; Section Plan, c.1791.” In Treasures from UCL (2015), 136-39.
  • Galič, Maša, Tjerk Tima, and Bert-Jaap Koops. “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation.” Philosophy & Technology 1, no. 30 (2017), 9-37.
  • Goffman, Erving. “Characteristics of Total Institutions” in Asylums. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company (1962), 1-124.
  • Greer, Dave. “The Internet I.R.L.” The New York Times Magazine. 5 June 2015. Photo gallery of the architecture of server warehouses and data transmission. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/05/magazine/the-internet-irl.html.
  • Haw, Alex. “CCTV London: Internment, Entertainment and Other Optical Fortifications.” AA Files, no. 52 (2005), 55-61. www.jstor.org/stable/29544801.
  • Kirkbride, Thomas S. On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston (1854).
  • Knight, John. “Inquiry into the Penitentiary in Philadelphia.” Mechanics’ Magazine, and Journal of the Mechanics’ Institute, vol. 5 (1835).
  • Foucault, Michel (author) and Alan Sheridan (translator). “Panopticism.” In Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, (1977), 195-228.
  • Manokha, Ivan. “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age.” Surveillance and Society, vol. 16, no. 2 (2018), 219-237.
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus. A History of Building Types. London: Thames and Hudson (1976).
  • “Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary. ”Paris: Demetz and Blouet (1836). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eastern_State_Penitentiary_Floor_Plan_1836.png.
  • Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press (1998).
  • Thibaut, Jacqueline. “‘To Pave the Way to Penitence’: Prisoners and Discipline at the Eastern State Penitentiary 1829-1835.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 106, no. 2 (1982), 187-222. www.jstor.org/stable/20091663.
  • Yanni, Carla. “Transforming the Treatment: Architecture and Moral Management at Eastern State.” In The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2007), 49. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt2gd.


List of Figures


* indicates image created by author from computer model

  1. Willey Reveley’s Floor Plan of Panopticon,c.1791
  2. Willey Reveley’s Cross Section of Panopticon,c.1791
  3. View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY*
  4. View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY*
  5. Guard’s view on ground floor*
  6. Guard’s cone of vision from surveillance corridors (annotated from Reveley)
  7. Panorama of cells from guard’s viewpoint in surveillance corridor*
  8. Guard’s cone of vision (annotated from Reveley)
  9. Guard’s walking circuit (annotated from Reveley)
  10. Plan of Eastern State Penitentiary, c.1836 (with author’s colour annotations)
  11. Guard tower blind spots *
  12. General shape of radial prison
  13. General shape of hospitals on Kirkbride Plan
  14. A few stock photo representations of the Internet
  15. Google Ngram search results for the term “panopticon” and “panopticism.




  1. Goffman, Asylums, xiii.
  2. Furlong, “Designs for a Panopticon,” Treasures from UCL.
  3. Author’s illustrations from his computer model.
  4. Evans, “Bentham’s Panopticon: An Incident in the Social History of Architecture,” Architecture Association Quarterly, no.3.
  5. Evans, The fabrication of virtue, 197.
  6. Haw, “CCTV London: Internment, Entertainment and Other Optical Fortifications,” AA Files, no.52.
  7. Ivan Manokha, “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age,” Surveillance and Society, vol.16, no.2.
  8. Robin Evans, The fabrication of virtue, 224.
  9. Colour-coding added by author to 1835 plan.
  10. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 197.
  11. Yanni, “Transforming the Treatment,” in The Architecture of Madness, 49.
  12. de Tocqueville, et al., On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, 74.
  13. Knight, “Inquiry into the Penitentiary in Philadelphia,” vol.5.
  14. de Tocqueville, 189.
  15. Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 68-69.
  16. Thibaut, “’To Pave the Way to Penitence,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 106, no.2.
  17. Goffman, Asylums, 71.
  18. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 201.
  19. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 22.
  20. Maša Galič et al., “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond,” Philosophy & Technology 1, no.30.
  21. Kirkbride, On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Incidentally, the templates for most American prisons and asylums emerged from Philadelphia within twenty years of each other.
  22. Pevsner, A History of Building Types.
  23. Bentham, Panopticon: The Inspection House, 5.
  24. Foucault, 206.
  25. Greer, “The Internet I.R.L., The New York Times Magazine (photo gallery).
  26. There are city plans (Paris) and buildings (stadiums) that seem to resemble panopticons. These similarities are purely formal and accidental rather than intentional. Not every circular building you can stand in the middle of is a panopticon, or rises to the level of panopticism.

Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or… It can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable control.



The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.



Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,

To arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)

The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.

The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”

The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation”, like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]

Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. And, this constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct”. Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body.



Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.

Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.

As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail.



The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.



Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. The word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.

As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.



Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,

Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)

Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.

Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle of creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, they are almost interchangeable.

The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But, the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:

There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)

According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.

Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. But, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?


Panopticons Throughout History




[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).


Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipédia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.