Panoptic Governance

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A. Aneesh:

"Panoptic governance, in short, is governance by continuous surveillance. Foucault borrows the concept of Panopticon from Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth century design of prison architecture in which all the cells, arranged in a circular fashion around a central tower, were made visible from the tower top:

- By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cell of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism…reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap. (Foucault, 1979, p. 200-01).

Foucault uses the example of the Panopticon to highlight deeper transformations in systems of governance in modern societies, reflected in the tendency to surveillance. One of the major effects of the Panopticon was to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power,” Foucault (1979, 201) further explains,

- In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.

The principles of this system of governance, according to Foucault, have spread throughout the social body with generalized disciplinary effects. A gradual extension of such mechanisms to all social realms in the last three centuries have resulted in what he calls the “disciplinary society” with the primacy of cellular structures. Therefore, it is not surprising that “prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons” (Foucault, 1979, p. 228). We can easily extend his analysis of disciplinary effects of surveillance mechanisms to contemporary life. The growing prevalence of video cameras in shops, stores, and workplaces, and their use for disciplining the traffic on the streets have the effects of inducing in people “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” These surveillance systems share many features of the Panopticon, where the inmate is “totally seen, without ever seeing” and at the other end of power relations (in the central tower) “one sees everything without ever being seen” (Foucault, 1979, p. 202). In the contemporary world, surveillance is exercised not merely through camera-like devices; it is also put into effect through computer technologies that record the behavior of the user for the same purpose. Combining imaging and tracking technologies with relatively invisible practices of what is called dataveillance, computers seem to have enhanced the power of surveillance.

Surveillance systems at the workplace, even more than earlier industrial bureaucracies, implement the model of invisible authority and visible workers at the workplace. The new information systems can invisibly translate, record, and display the worker’s behavior, making it universally visible without the managerial eye, which is now inscribed in the system itself. As Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff, 1988) points out, information technologies not only automate operations (that is, replace the human body by technology to carry out similar processes); they also informate operations, that is, they also generate information about such operations (for example, by keeping a log of each and every step of a process). The generation of information about work behavior and productivity has obvious disciplinary effects on the worker. While the gaze of the information systems does not pose an immediate threat of being rebuked or discovered, it is more universal as it freezes all work activity for possible future scrutiny. Logs of labor make escape a theoretical impossibility. For instance, to detect manufacturing defects in products, “the same PC that is used to conduct the functional test also logs the test result by product serial number and technician. These results are then logged to a database, tracked over time and routinely analyzed to identify common failures. Failures can be statistically linked to specific technicians....” (Quiggle, 1997, p. 194). Software systems have not only appropriated the function of failure detection, which is no longer subject to managerial oversight; they have also made it difficult for the worker to escape the organizational gaze. There is a variety of enterprise-level software systems (e.g., LittleBrother), for example, that keep an ever-watchful eye on employees’ internet behavior, offering real-time monitoring in addition to generating customized reports automatically. Similarly, there are also small hardware devices that carry out similar surveillance functions. KeyKatcher, a maker of a small keystroke logger that records employees’ keystrokes for scrutiny, advises employers to “use the KEYKatcher to monitor employee computer usage compliance. Employees will spend less time browsing the internet and sending e-mails if they are being monitored” (KEYKatcher, 2001).

Managerial enterprise is clearly related to the exercise of control through the watch or the look, i.e., making the worker, and the work performed, more visible for the managerial eye.


One of the early management pioneers and successful managers Robert Owen (1771-1858) described his introduction to managing workers as follows:

- I looked very wisely at the men in their different departments, although I really knew nothing. But by intensely observing everything, I maintained order and regularity throughout the establishment, which proceeded under the circumstances far better than I had anticipated (Owen, 1857, p. 31-32). The phenomenon of the look is crucial to the exercise of managerial authority. Phenomenogically, Sartre (Sartre, 1966) has described the “look” as an attempt to capture the freedom of the other. Being watched or being visible limits the possibility of different modes of being to a frame of reference established through existing power relations. Foucault’s (1979) concept of the “gaze” carries similar import. The look or gaze employed in surveillance systems is an instrumentally interested look. It is not only the responsibility of authority to look at the worker, but also the responsibility of the worker to keep themselves in a position from where they can be easily looked at. The panoptic look does not take place behind the back of social language; it carries defined expectations; scales against which one will be, and is being, judged. The look distinguishes good from bad; therefore, it is important not only for punishment but also for reward. It is important, therefore, for the employees to be visible, especially when they are performing well, as there seems to be less possibility of good work being noticed than bad work going unnoticed. Visibility thus emerges as an intrinsic aspect of panoptic governance.

Both bureaucratic and panoptic forms of power derive their efficacy by what Weber would call formal rationality; that is, they transform certain “formal” aspects of governance whereby power no longer flows from persons; it is more and more embedded in rules, positions, architectures and devices. Algocratic governance also uses formal rationality, or rather, pure reason of symbolic logic, to produce another set of effects. It is the third mode of organizational governance. While bureaucracy signified the rule of office and the Panopticon symbolized the rule of gaze, algocracy exemplifies the rule of code." (https://web.stanford.edu/class/sts175/NewFiles/Algocratic%20Governance.pdf)