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Causing the exertion of self imposed pressure, so as to be coerced to comply in a specific manner by an unknown and unverified presence, this is the goal of The Panopticon Theory.

In the elite world of digital video surveillance and advanced closed circuit television monitoring, we leverage this theory to a great extent to apply pressure to the people that we have under video surveillance.

In its origins, the Panopticon was proposed as a model prison by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a Utilitarian philosopher and theorist of British legal reform.


The Panopticon (“all-seeing”) functioned as a round-the-clock surveillance machine.

Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the ‘inspector’ who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration.

The prisoner could never know when he was being surveilled.

It was this mental uncertainty that in itself would proved to be a crucial instrument of discipline of surveillance.

Therefore, the underpinning principle is that power should be visible and unverifiable.

The Panopticon Theory evolved from a type of institutional prison building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.  Most influentially, the idea of the Panopticon was invoked by French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his Discipline and Punish (1975), as a metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalize.  This means that the Panopticon operates as a power mechanism.


Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. Surveillance by CCTV cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace.  Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom, including Middlesbrough, Bristol, Brighton and London have added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras.  They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public. 


Similarly, critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panoptic form of observation.  ISPs are able to track users’ activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.


Above all else, Michel Foucault believed in the freedom of people.  He also realized that as individuals, we react to situations in different ways.  He used his books as a vehicle to show the various factors that interact and collide in his analyzation of change and its effects.  As a philosophical historian and an observer of human relations, his work focused on the dominant genealogical and archaeological knowledge systems and practices, tracking them through different historical eras, including the social contexts that were in place that permitted change – the nature of power in society.

He wrote that power “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault 1980,30).


Along with other social theorists, Foucault believed that knowledge is always a form of power, but he took it a step further and told us that knowledge can be gained from power; producing it, not preventing it. Through observation, new knowledge is produced.  In his view, knowledge is forever connected to power, and often wrote them in this way: power/knowledge.  Foucault’s theory states that knowledge is power.

The Panopticon was a metaphor that allowed Foucault to explore the relationship between 1.) systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation and, 2.) the power-knowledge concept.  In his view, power and knowledge comes from observing others.  It marked the transition to a disciplinary power, with every movement supervised and all events recorded.  The result of this surveillance is acceptance of regulations and docility – a normalization of sorts, stemming from the threat of discipline.  Suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by panoptic discipline and inducing a population to conform by the internalization of this reality.  The actions of the observer are based upon this monitoring and the behaviours he sees exhibited; the more one observes, the more powerful one becomes.  The power comes from the knowledge the observer has accumulated from his observations of actions in a circular fashion, with knowledge and power reinforcing each other.  Foucault says that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process” (Foucault 1977).

For Foucault, the real danger was not necessarily that individuals are repressed by the social order but that they are “carefully fabricated in it” (Foucault, 1977), and because there is a penetration of power into the behaviour of individuals.  Power becomes more efficient through the mechanisms of observation, with knowledge following suit, always in search of “new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised” (Foucault 1977).


Therefore, modern CCTV systems can apply this panoptic power and coerce people to comply.  Even if the CCTV camera hanging on the wall in a big box store is a fake or dummy camera, the shoppers do not know that it is fake.  They dutifully comply to civility and refrain from pilferage because they are concerned that they are being observed.  They feel the risk of getting caught.  It is real and powerful within them.  They believe that they will not get away with theft of the store’s inventory.  The dummy camera is applying a panoptic pressure demanding that they conform to societal rules.


Even if the camera is made from wood with a metallic looking paint job and a built-in red light suspended from a bracket on the wall to suggest that it is recording their every action.  It exerts a strong power over the would be thief.  This assumes that the perpetrator sees the fake camera and believes that they are being surveilled.

Even if the CCTV camera is real, the power that it imposes is the same as the dummy camera.  Again, it is this mental uncertainty that in itself would prove to be a crucial instrument of discipline of surveillance.



Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and Punishment. London: Tavistock.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon.

Mason, M. (2018). Foucault and His Panopticon. Retrieved on April 11, 2018 from,

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.