The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

The Panopticon was a prison designed to “allow a watchmen to observe all inmates of an institution, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Think of it as God watching – or not watching – from a cloud at what we’re doing and punishing us if we’ve behaved badly. The trick of the Panopticon is that – no matter whether someone (a watchmen or God) is actually watching – the “non-watchers” always feel like they’re being watched and therefore will try to make sure that they always stick to the rules.

Interesting concept, huh? An interesting question would be: how can we apply this fairly old idea into our modern societies? Well, there are many applications of Panopticon-like structures already in our modern Western civilization. Technologies like camera’s and sound recorders can make citizens – for example – feel like they’re being watched at all times. And it is this feeling – not the act of there being an observer actually watching them – that prevents them from doing bad stuff. Cost-efficient, right?

Now, let’s take a look at the workplace. Social media cost an employer an average of $65.000 dollars per year per employee. That’s some serious money, isn’t it? So you can understand that employers are looking for ways in which to reduce this – and many other – “work-distracting” activity. An option would be to block all “work-irrelevant” websites. But then the question is: what’s relevant and what’s not? Is checking the news relevant? It could be; it depends on what the news is, right? However, this option would have much less effect if an employee’s time-wasting activities would be performed outside of his computer-area.

Now let me ask you the following question: if you were an employee, and you would know that your boss could be watching what you were doing at any point in time, would you then still “check your Facebook-page” or send some “work-related” mails to you friends? Would you still be wasting your valuable working time if you would know that your boss would receive a message if you didn’t touch your keyboard for – let’s say – 10 minutes (except for the breaks, of course)? I doubt it.

So why isn’t it the Panopticon applied in the workplace yet (as far as we – or at least I – know)? Probably because people find it “wrong” for employers to do so. They find it wrong for employees to have the feeling of being watched all the time. But the question is: is this a legitimate reason for not implementing the concept? After all, a production worker is being watched all the time by his employer, right? So why not an employee sitting behind his computer? Is sitting behind a computer a free pass for just doing what you want in your working time? In the time you’re being paid by your employer? Thereby hurting your company’s profits and – indirectly – the security of your job and the job of your peers? I don’t think so.

But what do you think? Can we do this, or not?

Written by Rob Graumans

One thought on “The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

  1. the process of discipline and punish that comes with panopticizing the workspace is for pavlov’s dogs, not human beings. panopticism is a dehumanizing process.

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