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Am I being watched? The Panopticon effect at work


An illustration of the Panopticon, a circular building with a central watch tower surrounded by cells.
Original drawing by Adam Simpson (except the additional little icons...)

How is an 18th century carceral system design connected to the little status light showing on your Teams / Skype icon? It's called the "Panopticon effect".


The Panopticon is a building concept created by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, for prisons and other systems of control. The simple premise is that cells are organised around a circular building, with a watch tower in the centre from which guardians are able to view all cells. The subtlety is that light coming from the watch tower means that guardians can see out of it into the cells, but people from the cells can't see whether they are being watched, or even whether there is anyone in the tower at all. The control is meant to take effect and drive discipline because people know, think, fear that they could be watched. Initially, Bentham had designed the Panopticon thinking that this system of control would drive continuous self-discipline which would in turn get prisoners to adjust their behaviours and gradually correct them for the longer term. In the 20th century, the French philosopher Michel Foucault revisited this design in his work on systems of discipline and surveillance, seeing it as more of an insidious apparatus. He considered how power can be exercised using this same principle of fear of being watched or punished, even if there is only a small chance of this actually being the case. Foucault's work on the Panopticon influenced later references made to it to analyse the effect of things like CCTV or aspects of social media on people's behaviours, both expected effects, and unintended ones. The world of work is no stranger to the panopticon effect, and this is where the little status light comes in... For those using instant messaging services such as Skype or Teams at work, where a little light shows when you're there, busy, on a call, or away, do you ever worry that if you take a break from your computer or remain inactive for too long, you'll automatically appear as "away", and that colleagues, or your boss, might think you're slacking? Do you ever give your mouse a little nudge so that your status moves back to "available" or "busy"? Do you ever wonder whether people are keeping an eye on whether you're around, busy, or away? This is another example of the panopticon effect, where you might alter your behaviour on the fear alone that you might be watched and judged. Interestingly, this example mixes power with social dynamics, as it isn't just what your boss might think that affects you, but also what colleagues and peers might perceive, and what you think they might think of you... If we take this one step further, we all have our own different versions of our virtual panopticons, with people we put in the central tower and believe might be observing and judging us, making us change our behaviour. Except that we typically think that the central tower of our panopticon is much more crowded than it actually is! So it is good to stop and think at times, realise who we think might be observing and judging us, taking a reality check of how rational this really is, and try and clear our own watch tower!




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