The Virtual Panopticon

Impact of New Media Technologies, Fall 1996

"... a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up." - Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish


In 1791, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed an architectural innovation designed to lead to safe, humane prisons. He envisioned a prison space constructed as a circular array of inward-pointing cells. Solid walls between the cells would prevent any communication between prisoners, and a small window in the back of the cell would let in light to illuminate the contents. At the center of the ring of cells, Bentham placed an observation tower with special shutters to prevent the prisoners from seeing the guards. This "all-seeing place," or panopticon, was designed to provide complete observation of every prisoner.

Bentham's central goal of the panopticon was control through both isolation and the possibility of constant surveilance. A prisoner will constrain his own behavior with the knowledge that some guard may be observing every action, regardless whether anyone is watching at a given moment. Bentham found this Utilitarian ideal of oppressive self-regulation to be appealing in many other social settings, including schools, hospitals, and poor houses, although he achieved only limited success in promoting the idea during his lifetime.

Michel Foucault seized on this idea of a controlling space and applied it as a metaphor for the oppressive use of information in a modern disciplinary society. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault observed that control no longer requires physical domination over the body, but can be achieved through isolation and the constant possibility of observation. In modern society, our spaces are organized "like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible" (Foucault, 1979). We are seen without seeing our controllers -- information is available on us without any communication.

Foucault realized that oppression in the information age is no longer about physical domination and control, but rather the potential for complete knowledge and observation. "Without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, [the Panopticon] acts directly on individuals; it gives 'power of mind over mind.'" (Foucault, 1979) Physical intimidation is hardly even relevant in an information society where people need to regulate their own behavior to escape the constant threat of detection.

This idea has since become the darling of postmodern cyber-libertarians, who see the oppressive observation of corporate and governmental organizations as the fulfillment of Foucault's vision. The "all-seeing" comes in the form of literal observation through cameras in public spaces and electronic monitoring of workers, but it also has a more figurative element in the data-monitoring of credit agencies and insurance companies. Their view is that a society is being constructed where all behavior will be sharply regulated through the fear of theoretical observation by some oppressive entity.

The Virtual Panopticon

There has been much ballyhoo about the liberating and decentralizing aspects of new media technologies like the Internet and ubiquitous computing, but the fact remains that new information technologies will be every bit as effective for established organizations as they will be for garage e-zine publishers. It still remains to be seen to what extent the new media technologies will in fact increase the centralization of power by facilitating unprecedented monitoring and observation.

I have explored this idea through the virtual construction of Bentham's panopticon as an information space. The user of the space is put in the central place of the information collector and controller, inverting our traditional role as the subject of observation. The faceless prisoners of this space are held in darkness, illuminated only by roving spotlights that prevent them from observing their observers, reinforcing Foucault's idea of a citizen who "is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication" (Foucault, 1979). The spotlights never illuminate the observer, but they probe the darkness to find prisoners who can be examined to divulge their information, in the form of hypertext links.

This process of total information through casual examination is unique to a modern society. The space is constructed to yield this information to anyone in the right position, not just to the traditional bearer of physical power. The panopticon is "a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers" (Foucault 1979). The older physical concepts of information through torture and control are no longer relevant in the panopticon, where any authorized person may casually examine every aspect of life through access to electronic transaction records and direct monitoring of electronic communication.


The virtual panopticon was constructed in the Internet-standard Virtual Reality Mark-up Language (VRML), a file format that is used for describing three-dimensional worlds. Code to create a single six-foot cube cell was hand-written and then a standard human figure was inserted into the center of the cell. This pattern was translated and rotated around a central axis to provide for an inward-facing ring of cells. A second level of cells was added, identical to the first, and a concrete floor and two spotlights were added to the scene. The latest version of VRML, version 2.0, allows objects in the scene to move and change with the passage of time and the activities of the user, so the spotlights were set up to scan around the cells, one going clockwise every 20 seconds, the other going counter-clockwise around the cells every 13 seconds.

Every prisoner has a hypertext anchor associated with them that will open up a new web page when they are clicked upon. It turned out that it was easier to write a program to create a panopticon than to manually figure out the proper location and orientation of every cell, so a simple Java program was created that would take any number of hypertext links (in the form of Internet URLs) and construct a prison containing one column of cells for each URL.


Instructions for loading and viewing the sample panopticon are available here. That page also contains a link to the the files and program that are needed to generate new panopticons for any set of hypertext links. The sample panopticon accessible from that page concentrates on links to sites dealing with the impact of information technology on society. These links were selected by the members of a focus group of Sims 296a students.


Bentham, J. (1962). The works of Jeremy Bentham (J. Bowring, ed.). New York: Russell and Russell

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Levy, Michael. (1995). Electronic Monitoring in the Workplace: Power Through the Panopticon.

VRML Architecture Group. (1996). The Virtual Reality Modeling Language Specification, Version 2.0.

David Engberg
Last modified: Wed Nov 27 11:21:36 PST