In the late 18th century, English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham proposed an architectural model for a new type of prison called the Panopticon.
The Panopticon consisted of a large cylindrical building with an open space in the middle like a doughnut. All the way around this building were the prison cells, all facing inwards. In the centre would be a tower housing the prison guard. The guard in the tower could observe any of the inmates at any time, but the inmates would not be able to see the guard.
Bentham’s idea was that inmates would not need to be chained or locked up, because they would constantly think they were being watched. Even if they weren’t being watched, they would still behave as if they were. They would effectively be policing themselves.
Although Bentham’s Panopticon was never really built, many philosophers became really interested in it as a concept. One of these was twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault. He believed that many of our social structures act in the same way as a Panopticon. By this he meant that a lot of our social structures are actually mechanisms that cause us to police ourselves.
Big Brother is Watching You
You may have heard of the TV show Big Brother. But do you know the origins of that expression?
In 1949, a few years after the end of the Second World War, English author George Orwell wrote a book called Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is set in the year 1984, after the world has been shaken by a series of nuclear and civil wars following WWII. A totalitarian government has taken power, and wields control over the people through continuous war, perpetual surveillance and mind control. The leader of the Party is called Big Brother.
In this vision of the future, everyone is under continuous surveillance by the authorities. They are also constantly reminded that they are being watched by the slogan ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Individuality and independent thinking are considered thoughtcrimes, and are also monitored by the thought police.
The book is a dystopian vision of the future. It has been described both as political fiction, satire and science fiction. Like many writers and artists, particularly during and after war, Orwell was concerned about how much control governments had over their people, and what they did with the power they had.
- Can you think of other examples of books or movies that have a similar dystopian vision of the future? Make a class catalogue of all the examples you can think of. What do they have in common? What do you think the creators of these works are concerned about?
- What do you think George Orwell would have thought of the TV show Big Brother? (PS, George Orwell was not his real name!)