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“The panopticon effect”: How best to handle surveillance

“The panopticon effect”: How best to handle surveillance
“The panopticon effect”: How best to handle surveillance


Will is driving along, and he sees a police car up ahead. He puts down his coffee, tenses up, and drives exactly at the speed limit. He puts on the most law-abiding face possible.

Mia is at work behind a computer when her boss walks in. She shifts tabs, frantically types, and huffs as if overworked. She smiles as if to say, “I love my job, but I’m also hard at work.”

Stefan is aware that his school monitors WiFi. He has to log in every morning. He’ll wait until he gets home to visit that site.

In each case, a person has changed their behavior because they’re being observed. According to Michel Foucault, it’s all part of a power dynamic, which he explains with reference to the panopticon. It’s an idea that affects us all, and no more so than the modern workplace.

“Grind rogues honest”

The word “panopticon” — from panoptes, the Greek word for “all seeing” — was first coined by the British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, but Foucault developed the idea, to make it his own. Originally, Bentham imagined a prison with a central watchtower that could look into any of the cells lining a circular wall. The tower itself may be manned or not. The prisoners might be watched, or not. For Bentham, the fear and uncertainty of being watched would “grind rogues honest.”

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Bentham’s prison was never built (at least in his time) but Foucault incorporated the concept into his theory of “normalization.” Foucault was keen to point out that there’s power in observing someone. When we feel we’re being watched, we behave a certain way. We force ourselves to be “normal,” and we bend over backwards to appear to be a respectable member of society. After a while, this constant sense of being on display is internalized, and we police ourselves to conform.

Imagine you’re driving in the middle of nowhere at 3 a.m. and come to a red light. Why do you stop? There’s no one around, and there’s no point at all to it. Yet, for Foucault, the nagging paranoia of being watched is “productive power” at work, where we willingly dance to an unknown piper’s tune. There is a sense in which “visibility is a trap.” Being open and transparent allows others to order, judge, and categorize us. This power doesn’t need soldiers or enforcers. It just needs us. We insist on each other bowing to a certain criterion of “normal.” We must all, always, be normal.

Ways of watching

The panopticon is not some 18th-century fantasy; it’s everywhere. It’s in glass-walled offices, website cookies, WiFi logins, drones, and “Smile, you’re on CCTV!” stickers. We’re watched more than ever, and even when we’re not, we feel watched. Here are three relatable examples of this and how we might learn from them.

Adjust the speed camera. Most companies or organizations will have some kind of performance review system. These often act to coach and develop employees, but they’re also used to measure and grade someone: Both are necessary for effective workplaces. Reviews let management know who to promote, who to pass over, and who to push to the side. The problem is that a relatively short review period creates the “speed-camera” effect of the panopticon. When drivers see a speed camera, they slow down for 200 meters, then carry on their speeding way. Likewise, with a lot of performance review periods, you will only get a narrow, artificial window into working life. The key here is not to be rid of the panopticon but to hone its gaze and create an effective review cycle. There is evidence to suggest that 360-degree and peer reviews with regular, timely feedback are the best.

Listen to the data. The idea of an overbearing boss watching you all the time is the stuff of dystopias and Mordor. The “cameras always on” stories of COVID-19 were a strange, paranoid blip in our social history. But the idea of watching your customers can be a good one. If you want to sell a product, you need to know the market. If you want to keep the market, you need to move with it. Over on Big Think+ filmmaker Todd Yellin, the former VP of Product Innovation at Netflix, talks us through how to create a “consumer-centric culture.” One tip is to “ignore what the customers say they want. Listen to the data.” In other words, trust what the panopticon shows.

Avoid “panoptical claustrophobia.” The biggest takeaway from the panopticon is perhaps: Son’t do it. At least in the workplace and with people you want to succeed. In a huge meta-study entitled Workplace Surveillance: An Overview, Kirstie Ball presents four negative implications of excessive surveillance. First, it might often be illegal; violating privacy is a violation of many countries’ laws and rights. Second, it often stifles creativity, where employees prioritize compliance over innovation. Third, having certain tasks watched creates a sense that those are the most important. Employees work harder and longer at the observed jobs. Finally, as is expected, being watched makes employees anxious and worried about their job. Ball’s paper concludes that this is not to say surveillance is all bad — sometimes it’s very useful — but the panoptical claustrophobia of a Big Brother is best to be avoided.


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