The Difficulties of Conserving Energy in a Panoptic State

Riley —  February 12, 2010 — 1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago in Modern Architecture and Sustainability, we were assigned a chapter from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, titled “Panopticism.”  The chapter opens by describing the measures taken in the 17th century to contain the plague.  People were quarantined in their homes, delivered food, and watched through regular inspections in which the whole family was required present itself at a window so the neighborhood inspectors could make sure no one inside had succumbed to the disease.  This marked the development of a system of societal discipline and authoritarian order through measurement and supervision than has strongly influenced the structure of our society today.

Foucault then presents an icon of this ideological transition: the Panopticon.  In 1785, the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham proposed a new type of prison building whose structure fundamentally altered established notions of power and security in architecture.  The design “incorporates a tower central to a circular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer” (Ben and Marthalee Barton).

A prison inspired by Bentham's Panopticon.

This unique and unprecedented architecture creates a brilliant yet diabolical power dynamic based on observational capacity.  The prisoner in a cell is completely cut off from other prisoners around him, yet unable to hide from the gaze of the supervisor in the central tower.  But Bentham’s master stroke is in making observation one-way.  The prisoner can never know if he is being watched, so must assume that he is always being watched.

This design, but more importantly this idea, increases the economy and efficacy of power, eventually leading to contemporary disciplinary measures.  The Panopticon becomes the icon of this transition from closed-in, forcible discipline to the more diffuse, informational discipline of the post-Enlightenment – what Foucault calls “panopticism.”  While previously the preferred form of discipline was death or dismemberment, in a panoptic society the ideal punishment is indefinite examination.  This notion has infiltrated other aspects of modern society including hospitals, schools, and factories.

A college campus at night.

Now, this is all very interesting stuff, but after reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit dramatic and Orwellian and didn’t reflect contemporary society.  But walking home from the library one night, I was struck by how illuminated the campus was.  Between streetlights, building lights, and windows, I was hardly ever walking in what I would call “dim” light, and certainly never in the dark.  As an environmentalist, my first thought was that this obviously constituted a tremendously wasteful practice, and that we would be better off…what?  Turning off the lights and letting people walk home in the dark?  Or even just through dark patches?

That’s when it occurred to me that light has become nearly synonymous with safety in our society.  Even in a place like Claremont, it seems unreasonable to expect people to walk around in the dark.  In the dark, it’s much easier to commit crimes because the target can’t see it coming, and there are no witnesses.  By illuminating areas where people walk, we create a panoptic environment in which people could be watching, whether or not they are, and this is enough to deter the vast majority of crime.

Even when it comes to home security we have shifted our views.  While strong doors and locks certainly play their role, the front line of defense is exterior lighting.  By lighting the exterior of our homes and businesses at night, we force would be criminals to recognize that it’s at least possible that they are being observed.  The home becomes the central observation tower of Bentham’s structure, wherein the occupants maintain a position of observational power over those outside (though this position becomes interestingly reversed if the blinds are not drawn).

The United States at night, seen from space.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this pervasive panopticism carries profound consequences in a society concerned with the environmental impacts of energy usage.  Using less energy by turning off lights becomes an entirely different issue when light is considered a safety necessity.  People are willing to make small changes for the environment, but even some devout environmentalists will shy away from the dangers (whether real or perceived) of darkness.

Turning off lights is all well and good, but light has too much significance in our society for its conservation to constitute any real environmental impact.  We aren’t capable of making a meaningful shift away from our current panoptic notions of security, so the better path for environmentalism to take is investment in burgeoning alternative energy that will let people continue current energy use practices while mitigating the environmental consequences.



Riley MacPhee is a recent graduate of Pomona College with a B.A. in Environmental Design and a minor in Philosophy, and has been writing for the JA blog for the last 3 years. He is passionate about architecture and design, and will be applying to M.Arch programs in the fall.

One response to The Difficulties of Conserving Energy in a Panoptic State


    In his book, “Sustainable Energy – without all the hot air”, Prof. David McKay does a brilliant job identifying all the resource demands of humans and estimates that lighting makes of 4kw/person/day out of a total consumption of 125kw/person/day. Transportation and heating and cooling make up almost 80/kw/person per day. So yes, lighting is a small component. Given that most of it is electrical though (not oil based) significant gains in CO2 reduction can be had by switching the electrical power source from coal to natural gas, renewable energy and smart metered/controlled switches (motion sensors) and appropriate light levels given the situation. I am all for students staggering home at 2am to have sufficient lighting to see their way home safely and prevent unwanted assaults. To compensate we could start by turning all the lights off in the empty highrises at night.

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