The Birth of the Surveillance Society
Morals reformed - health preserved - industry invigorated, instruction diffused - public burthens lightened - Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock - the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied - all by a simple idea in Architecture!Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon
Jeremy Bentham was, without doubt, a genius. Born in Spitalfields in 1748 to a Tory family, he began his formal education at the age of 3 after showing remarkable precocity. He went on to promote equal rights for women (and also animal rights), recommend the decriminalization of homosexuality, the hanging of pederasts, experimentation with bestiality and the banning of masturbation. A mixed bag then.
He was a Utilitarian, which is an excellent idea in theory, but results in the sort of inflexibility that left him unmarried despite desiring greatly to acquire a wife. His emphasis upon purpose and utility, plus his experience of the law led him to create the Panopticon, a new kind of prison. Prisons at the time were usually either older buildings, adapted with varying degrees of success, or purpose-built hulks interested only in segregation and secure confinement. Bentham’s proposals for the Panopticon, produced in 1787, read very reasonably and there is much to recommend, but along the way it becomes something far more than the sum of its parts: a monster. A circular prison whose capacity was limited only by the contemporary inability to build much above four stories, cells were ranged about a central observation tower. In the tower, a hidden warder was able to watch each barred cell without the inmates knowing if he was even there or not. They could not rely on a warder’s inattention, even for a moment, but nor could they assume their actions, or lack of said were even noted. Now, we are used to the omniscience of CCTV, and some even find being watched throughout their day reassuring. At the end of the 18thC, this was a seriously disturbing concept and not one readily adopted by prison planners (although many other of Bentham’s recommendations, such as central heating for prisoners were adopted in new prisons). Whilst they were keen on the idea of being able to leave prisoners unfettered, and on the economies allowed by dramatically reducing warder to prisoner ratio, the idea of being watched by a faceless entity was viewed as deeply sinister, a fact that slipped past Bentham completely:A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.The Panopticon has gone on the fire the imagination of almost every philosopher, not to mention science-fiction writer since (1984 anyone?). For reasons I cannot quite place, it is one of the most disturbing ideas ever concocted for honest, humanitarian reasons. The only true Panopticons ever built were in North America, to Bentham’s model. (Pentonville prison is often incorrectly cited as an example.) There’s tons I could write on Bentham, but instead I shall let you consider the Panopticon through the gallery.