Architectural Surveillance: Bentham’s Panopticon and its Modern Impact


From a man who believed in the concept of ‘The greatest happiness for the greatest number’, a man who was taxidermied, came a structural innovation that was, in its initial days, envisioned as a disciplinary undertaking. Jeremy Bentham is popularly regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, and today, we look through his Panopticon.

Operating on the principle of self-imposed discipline, the Panopticon was built with an inbuilt system of control. Originating in the 18th century—1791, to be exact—it allows all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single corrections officer without the inmates knowing whether or not they are being watched. The idea is that Power is derived from observation, and for power to be most effective, it needs to be visible and unverifiable. 

In the digital age, the Panopticon is not just a building anymore. It is now everywhere. Let us walk through exactly what the structure entails, its working philosophy, and the modern impact that it has had on architecture across the world. 

The Panopticon In Practice: Architectural Layout

The Big Brother of Prison Designs

Jeremy Bentham is regarded as one of the greatest social reformers and philosophers today. This man could fluently read and speak Latin at the young age of 3, or so Wikipedia tells me. Considered a child prodigy, the panopticon structure, a type of institutional building, has long dominated his legacy.

The basic principle of the design consists of a central guard tower surrounded by a ring-shaped building of prison cells. The cells line the outer edge, and the guard tower stands at the heart like a sentinel. Thus, the tower has a 360° view of the entire ring of cells, giving the guard a complete view of the inmate’s activities.


Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba.

The tower is surmounted by a large light that was supposed to provide the sole light source across the prison. Lore would describe such a light as so bright that even the tower would become invisible. The design includes a small window in the tower that was to be used to see into the cells. However, to the eyes of the inmates, they could not see inside the tower at all. No silhouettes, nothing. 

The trick here was the subtle, calculated technology of Subjection. Playing in the balance between Pervasive power and Obscure power, Bentham’s Panopticon functions as a seesaw.

Sure, it is physically impossible for a single guard to observe all the inmates’ cells at once. However, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched motivates them to act as though they are being watched at all times. This makes discipline self-imposed. So, just knowing that you are visible should be enough to keep you in line.

Design Principles: Purpose And Philosophy Of Creation

“A null for guiding rogues honest” 

When the guard in the tower has a complete view of the cells, but from the prisoner’s vantage point there is no vision of the guard, a very interesting behavioural shift occurs. What happens is, to an inmate, it doesn’t really matter if a guard is manning the tower at all. The inmates start to watch themselves out of fear of being watched.

For example, if you’re driving and come across a stop sign, you can see miles ahead and know for a fact that there is no guard in sight. Many of us would STILL stop. I’m not saying we all would, nor am I suggesting that everyone suddenly follows all the rules. But the idea is that some of us, interestingly, do

We govern ourselves, even though there are not necessarily any repercussions. The police are an internalised authority—people tend to obey laws because those rules become self-imposed.

So, the Panopticon represents the ideal form of power. Because it takes away traditions of capital punishments and a king to blame them for. Now, there is no single authority to which we can point or claim to be controlling us. We have come to internalise the eye of power, and we control ourselves. 

The below sketches were made by Willey Reveley, an architect commissioned by Bentham to bring his vision to life. 


A drawing of a panopticon prison by Willey Reveley, circa 1791. The cells are marked with (H); (M): The Skylight.


Dancing On The Cusp Of Utilitarianism

If one were to sit and ask a panopticon the age-old philosophical question, “Who guards the guards?”, the silence in the rooms would be enough to poke the bear.

You see, the idea of punishment has always been an exercise of ‘terror’. The bar is so subjective when one tries to discuss exactly what level of violent coercion, if ever justified, should be adopted for certain disobedient behaviour. We have been no stranger to traditions of violent punishments, the Spectacle of the Scaffold being among them. The Panopticon removes this violence completely and replaces it with something much more eerie. One thing remains constant: no matter how unjust society is, obedience is demanded, ultimately upon penalty of death. 

Criticism of the Structure 

Today, the Panopticon highlights how subtle the ultimate penalty has become. And this is exactly why the structure has been criticised. The prisoner in the Panopticon is seen, but he does not see. He is an object of information, never a subject in communication. This changes authority from a limited physical entity to an internalised omniscience. 

Shirley Robin Letwin, a conservation historian, accused Bentham of forgetting the dangers of unrestrained power and argued that “in his ardour for reform, Bentham prepared the way for what he feared”. David John Manning calls it (the panopticon) a place where there is no tolerance. The panopticon takes away any privacy that might be afforded to another human being, convict or otherwise. 

It’s not that Bentham was inhumane; he had affection for all things, even if they were inanimate. I mean, he even named his teapot Potty. One cannot deny that he was creating a space for philosophical dialogue and social reform. Alas, with the Panopticon’s questionable power divide, it was no surprise that Bentham himself could never see a prison built that truly encapsulated his idea.

Many prisons and other architectural structures have been inspired by his visions to date, such as the Presidio Modelo complex in Cuba. However, it was infamous for corruption and cruelty and is now abandoned. The Harlem Penitentiary is also an example.

Bentham was aiming for a symbol of ultimate supervision. The prisoners to be on display in a twisted, never-ending reality show, with the guards holding the remote. And what does that sound oddly familiar to… That’s right. The Truman Show!

The Truman Show-I-Ficaton of Society

Today, the world is a Panopticon. It has moved beyond prisons and workplaces and is now part of society as a whole. Social control has evolved with technology, becoming less obvious but more pervasive. Surveillance today is less about the watchful eyes and more about the invisible tendrils of data, tracking our every click, pause, and scroll with the finesse of a digital detective. We’re often told about data collection and surveillance by authorities, yet we’ve been conditioned to become indifferent to it, adopting a “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” attitude. 

Today’s version of panopticism is sneakier, shaping our actions and making us follow the rules without us even noticing the control. Instead of a physical tower, it is now in security cameras, algorithms, and data tracking.


You are always being watched; everything you do is being noticed and noted. Mass media today has turned a disciplined society into a variety society. Just like in ‘The Truman Show,’ Truman Burbank is completely oblivious to the fact that his life is being broadcast. The same ethical concerns need to be raised again about this omnipresent surveillance that the panopticon offers because the eye of the inspector is now on all of us.

The aim here is not to insinuate that we have things to hide; just that nothing is hidden anymore.

Sarvagya Munde A content writer incapable of brevity, Sarvagya believes that the world appears as a magic eye poster. More probable to be chanced upon watching movies and holding discussions on their brilliance, Sarvagya is a cinephile. She prefers to use them to expand her imagination and exist in multiple worlds at once. Her personality, ideas and thoughts are all an amalgamation of the latest series she’s watched or whichever song lyric hit a vein just right.
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