The New Panopticon

Surveillance is a powerful tool to discipline a subject’s actions. Jeremy Bentham recognised this when he proposed a new type of prison in the 18th century. The panopticon design would provide complete visibility of all inmates at all times to a centrally located warden. But Bentham’s real breakthrough wasn’t the importance of surveillance. No, what made Bentham’s idea unique was recognition that actual surveillance wasn’t necessary. The prisoners just needed to think they were being monitored. So long as they couldn’t see whether the warden was watching, they had to assume he was. Though Bentham never managed to get a panopticon built, his ideas remained and have resurfaced in modern times.


Now the panopticon is no longer applied to prisoners under the watch of the state, but workers under the constant scrutiny of their employers. What is the modern open plan office but a mechanism for the surveillance and discipline of workers?


Two rows of desks stretch out. A worker is seated at each, tapping away at his assigned repetitive task. His eyeline stretches only to the computer in front of him and the daggy cubicle panel beyond. The group manager’s desk is at one end, adjacent to the corridor. He could be watching over the workers’ shoulders, or he could be engaged in his own work. The hum of computer fans and air conditioning muffles any sound cues. A worker could swivel to check whether he is being watched, but to do so would expose his own anxiety. He cannot tell if he is being monitored without giving away that he cares. The branch manager’s office is slightly elevated, and frosted with one way glass. He could be watching too, but the worker cannot know.


The worker’s surveillance is not simply visual. Under the guise of being his friend, the manager has expanded upon the old power dynamics. Any conversations at the office are necessarily overheard by the group manager, who can place a black mark upon a worker’s file. Under the surveillance of the new panopticon, no worker can dare discuss unionisation or compare pay with their colleagues.


But technology allows the new panopticon to expand beyond human monitoring. CCTV surveillance in the office is commonplace, ostensibly to prevent theft of company property. But its presence means that workers may now be monitored throughout the workday. Just as with Bentham’s panopticon, it doesn’t matter whether anybody is actually watching. The worker cannot tell, and so has to act is if he is being watched. Phone calls are (or can be, it makes no difference) monitored, tightening the straitjacket further.


The computer upon which the worker completes his tasks betrays him too. Anything sent on the company email is monitored. The web browser records a worker’s history, so that any offending items can be identified. IT specialists may be able to monitor a workers actions, either directly or through logging. It doesn’t matter whether the worker is actually being watched; the possibility alone is sufficient to discipline his actions.


The provision of a company phone and/or laptop is common in white collar jobs. These tools extend the range of surveillance beyond the physical office. Anything recorded on the company laptop is available to the company. The company phone knows how often the worker checks his emails outside the office, how much unpaid overtime he is putting in.


In this digital age, the surveillance of workers extends even to their actions in cyberspace. A worker’s communications online are monitored. If a worker expresses a personal opinion on social media which goes against the company line, then they can be sacked for it. Just ask Scott McIntyre. The job doesn’t finish when a worker leaves the office, but instead they are monitored throughout their lives, with the possibility that any actions can be used against them. Even during the recruitment process, a worker’s online presence will be checked to ensure they fit the standard mould.


All this surveillance might not worry you. You’re a hard worker, so you don’t mind the company keeping track of that.


But just like Heisenberg’s quantum particles, people change their actions when observed. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Surveillance has a chilling effect on solidarity, blocking workers from any discussions which might benefit them in the struggle for wages and conditions against their company. It should be no surprise that union membership is at the lowest levels recorded, when any organising workers can be identified and moved out.


If you want one of the rare full time professional jobs, then competition is fierce. It is no longer enough to simply be qualified. Your life must conform to that of a dull worker-bee, never showing signs of anything which might reduce your market value. No photos on Facebook of you drinking with your mates. No politics. No family commitments. Just a blank slate upon which the company can imprint its ethos. And you must maintain this demeanour – not just at the office but throughout your life.


Surveillance is just one of a number of ways in which work intrudes upon our personal lives, but it is important nonetheless. I’ve been considering whether it is really such a good idea to maintain this blog – so closely associated with my unique name – now that it has moved past the bland scribblings which the project begain with. After all, criticising the institution of wage labour isn’t something that would endear me to potential employers, no matter its erudite style.


While its effects on worker communication are important, most critical is the impact surveillance has upon the nature of work. Constant surveillance pushes us towards conformity – conformity with the inhumane nature of Taylorist labour. We are disciplined to always be working at maximum efficiency, turning ourselves into machines made of meat. Machines which can only proceed with our orders, unthinking and compliant. The fear of punishment is sufficient to keep us in line, constantly monitored for any transgressions.