Panopticons and social behavior

"Work Makes You Free."  Taken at Dachau, Germany by Pete Kim.

In the 18th century, English architect Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon, a prison structure that allowed guards to watch prisoners without knowing when they were being observed – so that prisoners felt that they might be under watch at all times.

Two centuries later, French philosopher Foucault applied the idea to discipline in the organization, particularly in the industrial age.  Managers and foreman stood in offices high above the shop floor to observe activity below.

In modern offices, the panopticon persists in today’s cube farms – where open work spaces may foster collaboration, but also facilitate observation by managers and peers.

In the 21st century, the panopticon has moved online.  Today’s IT departments install keystroke loggers and web proxies that monitor employees’ computing activities.

Employees usually react to panoptic observation by falling in line and acceding to discipline – or leaving the company (only to fall into the same situation, different brand on the door).

But social computing fosters 100% anti-panoptic behavior.  People become exceedingly transparent and open.  Observation loses its power as workers share the information anyway.

Today’s enterprise appears to be headed for a panoptic-social conflict.  Management desires control.  Employees walk out the door every night and want to return with the technologies they find useful in their personal lives.  You may block Facebook and Twitter today – but how long will it be until the Enterprise wakes up and realizes that community participation is the key to success?



Being: Peter Kim