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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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies