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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Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

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