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Mar 2 2009   1:56PM GMT

Closed-circuit TV “a high-tech Panopticon”

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

In The Guardian, Paul Lewis writes about Westminister’s CCTV system: “Using the latest remote technology, the cameras rotate 360 degrees, 365 days a year, providing a hi-tech version of what the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived as the ‘Panopticon’ – a space where people can be constantly monitored but never know when they are being watched.”

I remember the Panopticon from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. (Disclosure: I read it for a philosophy course.) Foulcault believed that the effect of the Panopticon — if not the precise design — was pervasive throughout modern culture.

From Wikipedia:
The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”

250px-Panopticon.jpg Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

… Many modern prisons built today are built in a “podular” design influenced by the Panopticon design, in intent and basic organization if not in exact form. As compared to traditional “cellblock” designs, in which rectangular buildings contain tiers of cells one atop the other in front of a walkway along which correctional officers patrol, modern prisons are often decentralized and contain triangular or trapezoidal-shaped housing units known as “pods” or “modules” designed to hold between sixteen and fifty prisoners each. In these designs, cells are laid out in three or fewer tiers arrayed around either a central control station or a desk which affords a single correctional officer full view of all cells within either a 270° or 180° field of view (180° is considered a closer level of supervision). Control of cell doors, CCTV monitors, and communications are all conducted from the control station.

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