The British thinker Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) devised in the 18th century a model of a circular penitentiary structure in which the cells were arranged along the circumference and the surveillance room was located in a central tower from which all the cells could be observed simultaneously. Each cell had a window on the outer façade of the building which illuminated the room, isolated the prisoners from each other by means of side walls and the front grille allowed access to it and allowed permanent surveillance of the prisoners in the guard room. Conceived with the intention of providing an efficient and economic security system in the prisons, the design transcended the architectural sphere, promoting a debate on the mechanisms of surveillance, control and power.
Some of the features of the central tower allowed guards to access the central tower inadvertently (underground access) and to guard without being seen by the inmates ( jalousies, zigzag wall systems), so the prisoner could not be certain if he was being observed at a particular time. As Bentham argues about the panoptic, which he called this construction model, the fundamental advantage of the panoptic is “to be incessantly in view of the inspector, losing the power to do evil, and almost the thought of trying”.

The idea of a system that has citizens under permanent scrutiny was picked up by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) in the reflection on power structures he proposes in his work “Vigilar y Castigar” (1975). In his analysis, he compares two control models applicable to two common health situations throughout history: leprosy and plague. In the first case, the system identifies and classifies individuals into two groups, healthy and sick, isolating the latter in a specific and controlled location. In the case of plague, a permanent surveillance network is established that collects information by quadrants declared in quarantine, and reports continuously to a coordinated operations center, which will ultimately be responsible for actions on each individual. For Foucault, there are similarities between this temporary operation of the plague and the way in which a society exercises permanent power over its citizens, and he considers the panoptic to be a small-scale model that illustrates the mechanisms of surveillance and discipline that can be transferred to different spheres and institutions.

The arrangement of the cells in the ring allows only axial visibility from the control tower, making them invisible to each other. According to Foucault, this “invisibility is a guarantee of order”. By applying the model in prison, riots and conspiracies are prevented, contagion is avoided in the hospital, students are prevented from copying in school and productivity in factories is increased. The mass and its collective effects are abolished and replaced by a collection of separate individualities. Foucault proclaims the marvellous effect of the Panopticon that induces in the prisoners a state of consciousness and visibility that guarantees the functioning of power: “Power must be visible and not verifiable”. The constant presence of the tower betrays the surveillance system, but the person being watched must never know if he is being watched, nor who his watchman is. It is a mechanism that automates and disindividualizes the application of power.

Foucault did not manage to witness the rise of Social Networks -and Big Data as the ultimate and true justification for their evolution- but he did identify some of the vectors that we do not hesitate to recognize today as responsible for the magnitude and direction of digital culture: “communication circuits are the support for the accumulation and centralization of knowledge”. Foucault does not believe that the individual has been amputated, repressed or altered by the social order; rather, he considers that “individuals are carefully fabricated”. When we say that we are “less Greek than we think”, we renounce to be part of the amphitheatre and the stage -which by inheritance of the Hellenic culture of the spectacle would correspond to us- and we place ourselves in the mechanism of the panoptic of which, by perverse effect of its influence, we form an active part.

The tower of the new Panopticon is each one of those surveillance cameras installed in the strategic places of our cities – streets, museums, commercial establishments, car parks, automatic teller machines, petrol stations, etc. – which record our movements in the public arena. From our urban “cell” we involuntarily participate and consent with feelings and opinions that pass between resignation and indignation, and the presence of the camera conditions our behaviour, imagining an “inspector” who observes us in the monitor of the closed circuit. In the digital world, Smartphones report to the “tower” our location continuously, search engines gather information about our consumer preferences and analysis tools define our personality and ideology according to the “likes” that we are sowing by the RRSS. More prisoners than ever, we compulsively look out the window of our virtual “cell”, from where we no longer guess to visualize any tower -invisible and unverifiable-, and as fools we let ourselves be dragged by the hypnotic flow of images, thoughts, hopes or simply banalities thrown into the deep abyss of this new Panopticon.

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