Exercise 4.2 – Foucault and Panopticonism

The student is asked to link to the OCA online resources and read Michael Foucault’s essay ‘Panopticism’, reproduced in Evans & Hall (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader, London: Sage Sage, pp.61–71. Once the essay has been read, the student is asked to make notes in their learning log.

Foucault visits the idea of the Panopticon, a design created by social reformer and utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham, consisting of a circular building with single cells lining the outer circumference. Each cell had one window to the outside and a barred entrance, meaning that each cell was visible to the guard tower situated in the middle of the ring. This allowed a guard to keep constant surveillance on all the cells and that anyone in a cell would be unable to see into any other cells and would be unable to ascertain if they were under surveillance by the tower.


Bentham took the idea further than just prison. He envisaged the Panopticon being used in mental institutions, factories and schools; each situation allowing for the single person in a cell proposal to prevent “outside” interference and allow each cell occupant to be managed on an individual basis.

Foucault examines the idea of the Panopticon and theorises that the Panopticon prison would enforce the mentality in the prisoner that they were under the possibility of surveillance at all time; this would cause the prisoner to behave in a proper and civilised manner at all time. The intention was that this mentality would be so engrained in each prisoner that upon release they would continue to behave properly. Foucault’s theory of a disciplinary society where constant surveillance to cow and control a society as a function of the government is not unique. Surveillance is a daily occurrence now in schools and workplaces where cameras, RFID cards, and door logging could be viewed as examples of the Panopticon monitoring of single individuals.

This idea of constant surveillance by powers was examined by the book 1984 (Orwell, 1949) and is now the catchphrase for surveillance and over-governance. However, it is in my mind that Orwell was wrong. Society will not accept cameras and surveillance being forced upon them, but they will happily put their own lives under surveillance freely using social media.

The Panopticon can also be used to envisage the compartmentalisation of a single person’s social media output; they will not put something on Facebook which they will then post of LinkedIn or Tinder. The fragmentation of their persona through the various windows of output on social media means that they are compartmentalising ideas and notions of their digital alter egos that they do not want fully connected to their real life self. A prime example of this is the troll and/or the keyboard warrior, an individual who takes pleasure in either bating people for a response or making threating comments that they would never do face to face in real life.

The digital panopticon of a person is spread across many sites, and while they may not realise it, they are creating different personalities to please each different audience. It goes as far as people starting to look and see if there are opportunities to create a twitter or a Facebook post out of any given situation as discussed by Peggy Orenstein in her article ‘I tweet, therefore I am’ for the NY Times (Orenstien, 2010) .

In the reverse of this, the audience never gets to see the whole person, they get small windows into the lives of the person that they are viewing over social media. It is only when these individual cells are collated that we begin to get a real idea of who the person is behind the social media presence. This usually happens in cases of ‘doxing’ where a person is identified after someone has gone through all of the digital presence investigating and building a complete picture of the person. Another other side of this is where the person live streams their crime to social media. An example of this is the recent insurrection in the US Capitol building where rioters broadcast themselves committing a crime live on the internet. Some of these individuals hid behind internet presences, but after broadcasting themselves and the videos going viral, they have been identified by combining their Facebook, Twitter and other social media presences as well as evidence broadcast by the media and the security surveillance footage from the Capitol building.

Foucault passed away before the development of the world wide web and social media, but his theories of Panopticonism fit very well into these new technologies, the fragmentation of one’s own digital presence to prevent a full surveillance of one’s own id and ego keystones with the small cell views created by a presence within a single social media application. We can behave badly because no one can see us, but our presence on a social media platform is in constant view to our audience and their judgement guides what we post.

Reference list

Brittain, A., Zauzmer, J., Abelson, J., Willman, D., Dungca, N. and Post, T.W. (2021). Washington Post profiles Cudd as part of ‘Capitol mob.’ [online] Midland Reporter-Telegram. Available at: https://www.mrt.com/news/local/article/Washington-Post-profiles-Cudd-profiles-as-part-of-15860491.php.

McKay, R. (2021). More Capitol rioters in viral posts arrested, senator urges social media providers to keep data. Reuters. [online] 10 Jan. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-police-investigation/more-capitol-rioters-in-viral-posts-arrested-senator-urges-social-media-providers-to-keep-data-idUSKBN29E0JC [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].

News, A.B.C. (2021). Many Capitol rioters implicated by their own social media posts. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/capitol-rioters-implicated-social-media-posts/story?id=75177672 [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].

Orenstein, P. (2010). I Tweet, Therefore I Am. The New York Times. [online] 30 Jul. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html.

Orwell, G. (2008). Nineteen eighty-four. London Penguin.

Reporter-Telegram, M. (2021). Who is Jenny Cudd? [online] Chron. Available at: https://www.chron.com/news/article/Who-is-Jenny-Cudd-15856266.php [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].

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