No one ever accused Jeremy Bentham of thinking small. The early 18th-century British philosopher, social reformer, and co-founder of the celebrated philosophical school of Utilitarianism, Bentham was known for his unconventional ideas. Like many self-styled progressive thinkers of his age, Bentham expended a considerable amount of energy dreaming up new ways to use the power of the state to protect private citizens from their own alleged follies.
The concept of the Panopticon was probably Bentham’s best-known brainchild. An extravagant idea for its time, it has proven an enduring metaphor in our time and — far more importantly — prefigured our modern obsession with high-tech surveillance. Derived from Greek roots that mean “all-seeing,” Bentham’s Panopticon was a building designed to house many people in close quarters whose rooms were so configured that a central authority, using a system of tubes and mirrors, could keep every inmate under constant surveillance. The Panopticon concept could be applied to prisons, factories, or any place where large numbers of people would live or work in close quarters. “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens [burdens] lightened — economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in architecture,” Bentham enthused, proclaiming that his Panopticon represented “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The energetic Bentham tried to persuade the British government to let him design a Panopticon prison, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Although he managed to persuade Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger of the Panopticon’s potential, Pitt’s successor shut down the project.
But Bentham’s premise — of a system of comprehensive state surveillance to guarantee a pliant and docile citizenry — is still with us, magnified by the potency of 21st-century technology and zealously promoted the world over, but especially in Western nations, like Great Britain and the United States, that once viewed such state activities as abhorrent and dangerous to liberty. A decade after the defining crisis of our era, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States of America is on the verge of becoming a Panopticon society, with powers of state surveillance far beyond the most fevered imaginings of Bentham and fellow pre-modern utopians...