The panopticons of Cuba

In a few places, Bentham's vision was realised. Then it became commonplace.

In 1786, Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher and social theorist who made great inroads in the fields of ethics, jurisprudence and political philosophy, as well as being the "spiritual", if not actual, founder of UCL) visited his brother Samuel in Russia, who was working for Prince Grigory Potemkin helping administer the new provinces the country had won in the Russo-Turkish War. There, Samuel suggested to him the idea of a circular building at the core of a larger compound, by which a few guards could oversee a much bigger group of workers.

Jeremy took the idea and ran with it, eventually publishing his plans five years later under the title Panopticon; or, The Inspection-House. He laid out his idea for a great building, focusing specifically on the application of his ideas to a prison, but emphasising the flexibility with which they could apply to hospitals, schools or "mad-houses". As his brother suggested, it would be circular building, with a glass lantern in the middle where the guards would keep watch, "roughly the size of Ranaleigh [sic]", meaning the rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea:

The Ranelagh Rotunda, as painted by Canaletto. The picture now hangs in the National Gallery

But Jeremy improved his brother's idea in one crucial way. As well as allowing just a few guards to administer an entire prison, his plan involved concealing the inspectors from the view of the prisoners, "by blinds and other contrivances". The idea then is that the prisoners are forced to act as though they're being watched, even if there's no one in the watchtower at all.

In practice, this element of the idea was too cumbersome to pull off. It was one thing, with 18th and 19th century technology, to obscure where someone was looking; but it was quite another to obscure whether they were even present at all, in a building which must, to be effective, allow occupants to look out from 360 degrees.

Philosophy students, on learning about Bentham and the panopticon, tend to assume it was a thought experiment, designed to elaborate some aspect of the human psyche. It wasn't; he actually spent the better over a decade trying to get it built, before billing the government £700,000 (just under £50m in 2012 pounds) for his time. They paid him £23,000.

But the fact that Bentham's panopticon was never built doesn't mean it never existed. In fact, prisons around the world incorporated his ideas, although few of them attempted to implement the hidden-observance aspect of it, even after inventions like two-way mirrors would have made it practical to do so. The two best-known (and photographed) ones are in the Americas.

Image from a period postcard.

The Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois (above) has the circular building, central guard tower and stacked cells, and the Encyclopaedia of Chicago confirms the Benthamite influence. The prison itself is still open, and the roundhouse block is now used to segregate inmates from the general population, as well as holding prisoners awaiting trial or transfer.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

The Presidio Modelo, a Cuban "model prison" built on an island off the country's south coast in the 1920s, was also built to a panopticon design. Tourists can now visit the prisons, which have four panopticon blocks, and a fifth where speaking was banned.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

It's not hard to see why the panopticon idea has fallen out of fashion. For one thing, it was a surprisingly inefficient way of holding prisoners; the large central area required means that the jails based on the idea take up a lot of room compared to more traditional designs. And the real problems with prison discipline have never been prisoners in their cells, but in communal areas – which a panopticon design can't really help with.

But the biggest reason is obsolescence. Where technology initially prevented actual prisons from employing the continuous observance aspect, it's now standard thanks to CCTV. And not just in jails, either. For most of us in our daily lives, we're never quite sure whether anyone else is watching. Even if we aren't moving, our electronic communications could be being observed. Bentham's vision arrived, two hundred years late. And he's still owed £677,000 for his time.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Met Gala 2016: the dull, the terrifying and the brilliantly odd

The Met Ball is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it.

For those unfamiliar with the Met Gala, it’s basically a cross between a glossy red carpet affair and a fancy dress party: the themed prom of your dreams. Hosted by Vogue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it. Each year there is a theme to match the The Costume Institute’s spring exhibition – the only rules are stick with it, be bizarre, outlandish and remember that there’s no such thing as over the top.

This year’s theme was Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology. A man-meets-machine theme surely offers a world of endless possibilities: suits that move by themselves! Colour-changing gowns! Holographic ties! Levitating shoes! Floppy disk trains!

Or everybody could just come in silver, I guess.

The cardinal offence of the Met Ball is to be boring, and this year, almost nobody was free from sin. As Miranda Priestly would say: “Metallics for a technology theme? Groundbreaking.” Cindy Crawford, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian (both in Balmain, like always), Rita Ora and Taylor Momsen (wait, I mean Swift) all need to take along hard look at themselves.

The only thing worse than “I’ll just shove something shiny on” is “Mmmmm guess I’ll ignore the theme altogether and make sure I look nice”. Flagrant disobedience never looked so miserably bland. In this category: Amber Heard, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Uma Thurman, everyone in Topshop, and literally ALL THE MEN. I mean, Tom Hiddleston could be any human male at a posh event from 1858-now.

In contrast, plus points for arbitrary weirdness go to Sarah Jessica Parker for coming as some sort of virginial pirate, Lorde for her directional arm cast, Zayn for his directional arm plates, Katy Perry for her noble ensemble reminding us all of the importance of tech security (keep it under lock and key, folks!), Lady Gaga for coming as a sexy microchip, and will.i.am for… whatever that is.

The best theme interpretations in my mind go to Allison Williams for her actually beautiful 3D-printed gown, Emma Watson for her outfit made entirely out of recycled bottles, Claire Danes for coming as a Disney light-up princess doll, FKA Twigs for dressing as a dystopian leader from the future, and Orlando Bloom for coming in a boring normal suit and just pinning an actual tamagotchi on his lapel. Baller move.

The  best outfits of all were even weirder. Beyoncé couldn’t be outdone in this dress, seemingly made out of the skin of her husband’s mistress: as she warned us she would do on Lemonade, with the lyric “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine.” Of course this peach PVC number is also studded with pearls reportedly worth around $8,000 each.

Solange shone like the sun in this bright yellow structural creature (paired with some slick yellow leggings that nod to her sister’s outfit) proving yet again that she is the only woman on earth who can pull off looking like a cubist painting.

Kanye was possibly the only person to have ever worn ripped jeans to a fashion event hosted by Anna Wintour and the Met, studding a jean jacket to oblivion, and wearing pale blue contacts to boot - he and FKA Twigs could lead the dystopian future together. When asked about his icy eyes, Kanye simply replied, “Vibes.”

But my personal favourite of the night has to be Lupita Nyong’o, who, radiant as ever, wins points for being on theme in her afrofuturistic look and the technology behind her outfit (her dress is sustainably made by Calvin Klein for The Green Carpet Challenge). She looks absolutely stunning, and is as far from boring as it’s possible to be with two-foot-tall hair. Perfection.

All photos via Getty.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.