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Panopticon (wikipedia.org)
92 points by hardmaru on Jan 14, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

Even if you disagree with his methods or conclusions, Foucault has some pretty interesting thoughts and arguments on the panopticon and is somewhat responsible for revitalizing interest in it in the 1970s.

For Foucault, the real danger was not necessarily that individuals are repressed by the social order but that they are "carefully fabricated in it" (Foucault, 1977), and because there is a penetration of power into the behaviour of individuals. (Foucault 1977).

Kind of chillingly accurate how that is when used to describe social media.



Whenever I think of the Panopticon I default to Foucault’s metaphorical embodiment and not Bentham’s literal one.

With Shenzhen’s new 5G/gigapixel systems rolling out in the subway, grocery stores, cross walks, apartment entries, and even KFC’s I realize both can be true.

Foucault's work on this is fascinating and still well worth reading, but to some degree it's already been eclipsed by reality.

The essential breakthrough of panopticon was using uncertainty as a multiplier, pushing people to act in fear of surveillance far more often than they're actually surveilled. That's an accurate description of getting dog-piled for a random tweet, but it increasingly doesn't reflect modern surveillance or even sousveillance.

A government can tap webtraffic to monitor everyone who searches for privacy tools, or put up a Great Firewall with known holes and track the people who bypass it. Lately, even random individuals can automate things like finding everyone who liked a tweet they disagree with, then searching their profiles for anything that might spark outrage. Even the ubiquity of videocameras represents a change from Foucault's era, since so much that's not a problem at the time is recorded and scrutinized later.

A lot of his ideas about the psychological impact of panopticon still apply, since consequences for this sort of thing are not applied consistently. But it seems important to note that observers who used to be constrained by perception are now constrained by agency, and so can more actively select which misdeeds to react to.

“ The concept of the design is to allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard, without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched.”

Maybe I’m weird but my thoughts immediately go to office design and allowing a manager to observe any/all employees without them being able to tell. Maybe THIS is the real point (or at least a “happy” side product) of open-floor-plan offices?

The typical factory design was always a two-story-high room, large and open, with the manager's office on the second floor and having large windows looking out over the factory floor. Manager can see you, but because of the angle, you can't see him. Open-plan people haven't cued into that yet, I suppose because of typical office buildings that only have 9 or 10 foot ceilings. But advances in camera technology should allow a single ceiling camera to be positioned over each cubical looking straight down without a lot of additional expense.

You can see this design pattern in many places. A supermarket chain I once worked at has the managers office elevated above the store with a one way mirror, so they can see out and no one can see in. It works. You never know if the manager is watching. I'm sure it deterred thieves as well as prevented staff from slacking on the job.

The same concept for years here was used in traffic light cameras, although they're really commonplace nowadays, in the past the traffic authority only had a relatively small number of actual cameras, but the camera boxes at intersections were fixed in place. You would never know if the camera at any particular time was in there, so everyone slowed down, took their time, and behaved at those intersections regardless.

Then there are satellites orbiting overhead. Maybe not a concern for you and I, but real-time, high resolution footage of basically any location on the planet is at the fingertips of many countries' agencies. You don't know if anyone's looking at you at any time, but just knowing that up there in the sky could be hidden eyes watching is a massive deterrent if you're trying to, I dunno, secretly mobilise an army, or move piles of drugs to a secret warehouse.

The US government invested a lot of time and money designing blimps that would be equipped with sensitive radio receivers and gigapixel cameras, that can float at high altitude virtually invisible to the naked eye while powerful onboard computers use image recognition to classify and track every moving object within a city (oddly called ISIS - Integrated Sensor is Structure).

The best part is you don't need to actually build and deploy these things, or if you do you don't need total coverage, just the very shadow of a threat of being observed secretly from afar is an really economical approach to getting large masses of people to fall into line. Knowing that it's possible is enough to raise the question of whether or not it's already been done.

From a supermarket to space, the panopticon pattern is nested and stacked under, over and around us in ways that we sometimes barely even recognise or know exist. Probably not a big issue for the most part if you're not up to anything nefarious, undoubtedly in many instances it's of benefit to productivity and society at large. But sometimes governments can turn nefarious, or you get an asshole boss, and then it becomes a problem for people.

So yeah I don't think you're weird thinking that open plan offices resemble a panopticon, though to make it work the boss needs his own side entry and a way of looking out while no one can look in. Add a loudspeaker so they can yell at people on the floor if they think they're being slack, and you have a warehouse I once worked in.

I do seriously doubt many of these workplaces made a conscious decision to build a panopticon, but it's apparently a natural product of a distrusting, cunning intellect.

Rather tangential, but the band ISIS had an album called Panopticon.

Even more tangential, but that's my namesake.

Excellent album

I couldn't figure out how the prisoners were not able to see whether they were being watched or not. Reading through the article though, it is left as an open engineering solution.

I found the following bits valuable -

> By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners

Since this is also tied up with the surveillance society which we seem to be heading towards, I find the following point very important -

> Bentham's inspection principle applied not only to the inmates of the panopticon prison, but also the manager. The unaccountable gaoler was to be observed by the general public and public officials. The apparently constant surveillance of the prison inmates by the panopticon manager and the occasional observation of the manager by the general public

I guess it's more that someone could just lean over and observe you at any time. You might not see a pair of eyes now, but turn your back and try something against the rules and a pair of eyes might suddenly appear.

There's a VR game called Panoptic based on the concept, it is worth checking out. The final version is to be released in a few weeks.


(disclaimer: I know one of the person developing it)

> The metaphor of the panopticon prison has been employed to analyse the social significance of surveillance by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public spaces.

Or how about the comparison with Google et al tracking our every move online?

Missing the point. The modern panopticon is not Google tracking you, or the surveillance cameras that only prevent very grave anti-social behaviour.

I propose that the modern panopticon are Facebook and Twitter, where anything you say, in any conversation and context, stays recorded forever and can be used against you at a later time- so you may damn well be very careful. And the irony of it is that the hidden guards are no one else than our collective selves.

McSweeny’s wrote a funny short story about an office switching to a panopticon [0].

I find these designs interesting. I used to want to simulate societies in structures like this. Then I saw stuff like the Real World, and more recently The Circle on Netflix. I realize that people are very different, and the chaos of the hoi polloi is not something that interests me in a way that doesn’t bum me out.

It would be cool to run a Monte Carlo of lots of different combinations until I find a mix of people who thrive in this kind of situation. Or at least one where I want to participate.

[0] https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/our-open-plan-office-fai...

Religion is a panopticon for civilizations who aren't technologically advanced enough to run surveillance by machine intelligence

This gets at something significant, but I think there's a sense in which it's backwards.

Religion promises to surveil you all the time. This stretches far beyond any one faith: the Abrahamic God is omniscient, karma is a direct consequence of each action, Anubis measures the whole of your life by the weight of your heart. Even Santa Claus, who is absolutely a religious figure to children, "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake".

Panopticon relies on the threat of surveillance. You could be surveilled at any moment without knowing it, resulting in constant self-consciousness. This is the logic of security cameras and secret police. If Santa corresponds to a god, panopticon is more like Elf on a Shelf. That's not just anecdotal, it's made very clear when a kid does breaks a rule behind a closed door because "then the elf can't see me".

The claim made by religion is far bolder. You might commit or witness an unpunished crime and realize that it's possible to misbehave without judgement, but you can't sin sneakily or find an example of someone getting away with sin unpunished. However, religion's claim isn't necessarily more coercive. Panopticon threatens arbitrary judgement. You might commit a venial sin and trust that a life of piety will outweigh it, but panopticon judges you on arbitrary moments. Even a minor, widely committed crime like speeding carries some risk of a harsh punishment.

(Calvin and Hobbes, of all things, takes this on quite insightfully. Calvin theorizes Santa relies on panopticon rather than omniscience, and changes his plans accordingly: https://imgur.com/VUhe8vG.)

Social media is a panopticon, recreating patterns we used to associate with inquisitors and town gossips. (What would Mrs. Grundy say - if she happened to find out?) Mostly, no one's watching closely, and unless someone actively documents what you say it can be deleted later. But anyone tweeting an offensive joke might get cancelled, regardless of their good works, if someone happens to notice.

Data processing is, or soon will be, religion made manifest. A sufficient power can surveil everyone at once, weigh up all their deeds, and choose who to punish. And full-take storage means the end of safety; what's recorded and found blameless today can be evaluated again in 10 or 50 years under different rules. That's pretty much unprecedented, and I don't think we've grappled with the implications.

The problem with this, which I learned about in grade school with bullies, is that it works only if the people are rational actors. If they don't understand the principles at work or don't care, the whole thing falls apart. You just need inmates who roll the dice or don't care, or bullies who cannot contemplate mutually assured destruction and your strategy completely falls apart.

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.


This is a great book, thanks for sharing!

People may call it "stupid" but as a meta-strategy or species strategy or whatever, it's actually pretty effective.

There are actually plenty of adversarial situations in which it's beneficial to give yourself a handicap in order to win. If you're playing "chicken" (where you drive cars at each other and whoever turns away first loses) you can blindfold yourself and remove the steering wheel. If you're doing Mutually Assured Destruction, you can set up an automatic retaliation system which you are unable to pause or cancel. By removing some of your options, you can effectively signal to your opponents so that they are forced to respond to your strategy.

Similarly, it can be beneficial to act "irrationally", because if your opponents are rational actors, they won't even try the strategy against you. E.g. If I know you will "irrationally" come for revenge after the fact even to your own detriment despite the fact that it won't fix anything, I might not try something against you in the first place.

>> it can be beneficial to act "irrationally"

I have seen this pursued with gusto as a career development strategy on occasion and it works rather well unfortunately. The basic approach is to be so outlandish, unprofessional, and unreliable that capable and rational colleagues will pick up the slack, confident that the crazy person will be quickly gotten rid of due to their bad behavior, however that very rarely happens. The irrational actor ends up being promoted because they are the most visible person on the project as everyone else is in hiding in anticipation of a shit-storm.

I have seen that too. Some even got promoted to break in some hardened structures in companies.

It can have appeal to some. And there is the fact that the standard 100% professional corporate culture is extremely unappealing and in contrast to such behavior.

That sounds more like an application of signaling theory, I e. “They must be very smart to be allowed this behavior”.

The canonical example for OP is the “mad man” strategy Reagoj supposedly followed.

Why does this remind me of a certain english speaking nation editing the EU?

The UK strategies appear to come from Dominic Cummings, whose blog reading list indicates they’re a fan [0] of the Rationality philosophy, and who has apparently made this exact behaviour an explicit part of the political strategies of the UK government on the grounds of game theoretic expected value etc.

[0] Other people more qualified than me to discuss the matter have argued variously that he is merely a fan — superficial familiarity but missing the point — or that he is reflective of the wider Rationality movement.

People can be made rational.

For the sake of discussion; One could watch new inmates like a hawk for an initial probationary period and enact disciplinary action should they reveal themselves as described.

In fact, taking the idea to its (awful) logical conclusion, randomly enacting disciplinary action in the initial period regardless of inmate behaviour would prove effective. "Beatings will continue until morale improves" I believe is the saying.

I think rationality is something that needs to be deliberately exercised, particularly when in emotionally stressful situations. Even if you can teach a thick headed bully to be rational, that doesn't mean you can count on him not having moments of irrationality. In truth, I doubt anybody can manage to remain rational at all times.

This ain't gonna work well.

If there's a pattern, it will be identified and exploited. New inmates being under closer observation or duress is a pattern, easy to spot and easy to test.

Did I hear Office Concept?

Isn't this how some public transport works (at least in the UK)? There's only a limited number of inspectors on the trams in Manchester so I probably won't get stopped but I don't know where they will be. I think the outcome is that the punishment has to be significant enough otherwise people work the probabilities.

(Note I always buy a ticket because I can afford it and want successful public transport.)

Funny story, London buses have traditionally had only one entrance at the front (apart from bendy buses), which made the driver also function as a ticket inspector. The new Routemasters introduced by mayor Boris Johnson have ticket touch points at each entrance and many people abuse this and get free rides. Johnson promoted those buses heavily and stated they would have a second person working inside as a ticket inspector like they used to have back in the day, but TFL said that this was never an option or even point of discussion, and there is no way to pay for the second employee in every bus. A single bus fare is £1.50 , a day ticket is £4.50 and fare evasion can cost up to a few hundred, but many people still use the new buses for free.

My experience is that most European cities have transit systems like this, whereas most American cities require you to pay before entering the system. I wonder if anyone has analyzed this from a sociological perspective.

or any Mass surveillance state like North Korea, China, Stalin-era Soviet Union, DDR (East Germany)

they had limited resources but high enough punishment to keep the population in check

The DDR spent considerable resources on internal security.

The Stasi museum in Berlin is well worth a visit. After the Helsinki agreement to limit physical abuse, prisoners were subjected to psychological isolation instead.

Some Stasi jailers wrote academical treastises on how to handle enemies of the state.

I always associate this word first and foremost with the device in Asimov's short story sequel to "Marooned off Vesta".

EDIT: Oops, in the story it was "anoptikon" which was a play on the misunderstanding in the first story that the company was talking about "an optikon" when referring to the device.

In my country we have a jail with this design, it's weird when you notice the similitude.

https://goo.gl/maps/xZcMWFsin3p6W6u68 (use the satellite view)

I thought this was going to be related to the sculptures in Lancashire


A while ago I registered a very corny vanity domain: http://panoptic.online/

I'll see myself out.

Was playing the game Control last night and got to a mission/area called Panopticon. I thought "huh what a cool made-up word". Cool to know this a real thing.

Obligatory (IMHO): https://selforganizedseminar.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/fou...

I don't know how you can even begin to talk about the Panopticon without mentioning Foucault.

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