In the late eighteenth century, English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed a model prison wherein there was minimal need for staff–and prisoners largely policed themselves. An observation tower was placed in a darkened center of the building, and cells were distributed round the observation tower in a circle. Each cell extended the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells were thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. (See this image of a prison built on this model in the Presidio Modelo in Cuba.) The effect of being subject to this sort of surveillance policed the inmates into constant adherence to the rules–never sure if they were being watched. This ‘panopticon’–all-seeing–was touted as an ideal prison, and its method of surveillance is the stuff of psychotic nightmares.
I experienced a modern-day panopticon yesterday, when I found myself stuck on a 2 hour video conference call wherein I could neither make out the individuals on the other side of the call, nor could I hear but about every third word. Despite my repeated attempts to tell the senior management on the other end of the call that they could neither be seen nor heard, they insisted on ploughing ahead with the meeting. Those in the conference room where I was sitting were stuck–trying not to fidget and trying to appear engaged–even though we had no idea what was being said. Later, when I suggested we just meet via phone (where the connections are better) and forego trying to see each other via the video conference equipment, I was answered with “I would prefer to both see and hear you” without acknowledgement of what I was actually saying. Apparently it is enough that they can see us.