Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Oppressive Spaces, Social Networks, and the Panopticon

How does being seen or being hidden influence our feelings?

Posted Sep 05, 2012

When you first approach the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, it puzzles. It’s really nothing more than a large field full of grey blocks of cement arranged in a regular grid across an undulating ground surface. When we visited the memorial for the first time in June, it looked empty other than for the occasional bobbing head of a visitor walking through the grid.  Perplexed but intrigued, my wife and I stepped into the space and began to walk. I led. I meandered through the narrow alleyways between the blocks, randomly choosing left and right turns, slowly descending into a valley so that the blocks towered above my head. From behind, I heard my wife sobbing. I had to make a few turns to find her and when I did I held her in my arms. I could feel her sadness and I shared it. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I thought I was going to lose you,” she sobbed.

And this was precisely the point. The memorial may look like nothing more than a bleak collection of blocks from the outside, but once you enter the space, the experience of the body overtakes you quickly. The gaps between the blocks are too narrow to walk side-by-side. You’re alone. Not only this, but you’re quickly submerged in the form with a strong feeling of disorientation and placelessness. You’re lost.  But at the same time, because of the long, straight alleyways, you are perpetually visible to any observer who happens to peer down one of the alleys from the outside.  You’re exposed and vulnerable, skewered on the long sightlines. The visitor to this memorial, swept off of the happy, bustling streets of downtown Berlin, is quickly and effectively immersed in a powerful and alienating experience that stands as a strong metaphor for what it must have been like to have been one of the thousands of Berlin residents who were persecuted by the fascist regime in Germany in the 1930s.

Spaces have the power to oppress. Architectural desolation can be symbolic, as in the case of the Holocaust Memorial, or it can be very real. Many prisons, for example, can produce that same combination of feelings: anxiety, loneliness, and vulnerability. Jeremy Bentham, in his essay Panopticon, describes what he characterizes as an optimal design for a prison. The Panopticon design is one in which the prisoner is perpetually visible to his keepers, yet they are invisible to him. Although Bentham struggled to find the design for the Panopticon, he ultimately failed to do so. The materials and technology of the day were not up to the challenge, and nor have modern prisons been completely successful, though some have come close. But what’s more to the point here is the general principle that architecture can alienate. French philosopher Michel Foucault understood Bentham’s goals and rephrased them effectively and succinctly:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”

 (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, Michel Foucault, 1973)

Foucault went on to argue that the Panopticon principle was not limited only to application in prison design.  In fact, he argued that the system that Bentham was striving to perfect was an apt metaphor for many different types of social organizations and structures:  schools, factories, and governments, for example.

Now we live in an age where modern technology has made it a simple thing to effect a powerful Panopticon such as the one that Bentham imagined and that Foucault decried, but the “keepers” are no longer salaried prison guards sitting inside walled turrets or control rooms.  The world has become a tight matrix of surveillance cameras, ranging from red-light cameras at intersections to CCTV-monitors in parking garages, elevators, government buildings, ATMs, and shopping centers.  It’s doubtful that those of us who live in cities could get through an average day without appearing as a flickering image on a screen somewhere.  To some extent, we accept this as a necessary evil, invoking the need for protection and security in a world that has perhaps more than its fair share of no-goodniks.  But the ubiquity of those surveillance cameras affects our feelings and emotions on an everyday basis, and not necessarily in a positive way.  Do those cameras necessarily make us feel safer or do they alert us to the possibility of danger where there may, in fact, be none?

What’s more, there may be a perverse irony in the rampant popularity of electronic social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.  Many of us use these tools on a daily basis to promote a business, to stay in touch with friends but often simply to place visible markers in the world indicating our whereabouts, our movements, our activities, and our thoughts.  And there’s no doubt that there’s some value in this—I’m as addicted to my Facebook updates and Twitter searches as the next person.  Or perhaps, I’m even a little ahead of the curve…  But it’s worth thinking about the fact that the very same tool that Bentham prescribed for the control of prisoners in jails is one that we’ve now perfected using the Internet.  Many of us are building a “state of conscious and permanent visibility” for ourselves, and it doesn’t seem to be unwitting.  Of our own free will, we build personal Panopticons.  The physical walls that surround us and give us refuge and privacy have been rendered completely transparent by our own use of our computers and our smartphones.  This development fills me with both fascination and alarm, and, although I’m not completely clueless as to why it’s happening, I’m not yet ready to put it all into words.  The ideas are still hatching.

But here’s what I think is important about this:  Much of the psychology of design deals with understanding how the boundaries of the built world influence behavior and thought.  We are beginning to understand from both field and laboratory investigations how what you can see and where you can go influences your mental state.  But now, by virtue of the tiny hand-held devices that seem to seldom leave our hands, our pockets or our purses, the very meaning of such physical boundaries has been integrally transformed.  For better or for worse we seem to have punctured all of our physical walls with silicon, electrons and RF waves.  In the process, we have completely transformed many of the rules that govern the relationships between our minds and physical space.  Now, more than ever before, we can build spaces simply by imagining them and then bringing them into being with our handheld devices.  Architecture, design, and environmental psychology can never be the same again.

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