Saturday, April 25, 2009

The paradox of the Panopticon

In his book, Discipline and Punish (1975), French philosopher Michel Foucault characterized modern organization as a Panopticon, a special type of prison. The brainchild of British utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, the design of the Panopticon gives its Warden complete control over his Prisoners through a clever combination of spatial organization and mirrors. From his exalted place at the center, the Warden can see the activities of all the Prisoners in all places at all times. Of course, it is not possible for the poor Prisoners to see when they are being observed by the Warden. (Bentham's blueprint for the Panopticon appears below.)

Foucault's analogy is perfect. From French architect Le Corbusier's "machines for living," to the office cubicle, to the security camera, to the monitoring of employees' internet traffic, to airport X-ray machines, to RFID implants, to the mind-control technology of Steven Speilberg's Minority Report, the Panopticon resonates with our own experience and expectations of Big Business, Big Government, and George Orwell's Big Brother. Of course, 9/11 has lately redoubled Big Brother's diligence and intensified the claustrophobia and paranoia of the Prisoners.

The Panopticon is a trap, of course, for the Warden as well as the Prisoners. For while the Warden may observe what the Prisoners are doing, the Warden may never know what the Prisoners are experiencing. Or thinking. Not even coercive interrogation can help. All of which impoverishes the poor Warden, intellectually and socially as well as economically, as game theorists have explained for over half a century in a famous example known as the Prisoners' Dilemma. Economist Oscar Morgenstern and mathematician John von Neumann showed in their groundbreaking Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1948), that, assuming that Prisoners are forbidden to coordinate their responses to the Warden's questions, the result of interrogation will be to limit social utility by denying shortened jail terms or even freedom to either or both Prisoners. I should hasten to add that there is an implicit assumption in the Prisoner's Dilemma that the Warden's compensation package turns not upon truth-based convictions, but upon convictions at any cost. In other words, the Warden is not rewarded for punishing the right Prisoner, but for punishing any Prisoner. The Warden can only interrogate Prisoners imprisoned in the Panopticon. Who knows whether or not the Warden has imprisoned the Guilty One?

The Prisoners' Dilemma is a potent criticism of Bentham's utilitarian philosophy, which holds that individuals pursuing their own interests naturally creates the greatest utility for society as a whole. If we accept Foucault's concept of the Panopticon is a correct characterization, then we must also conclude that modern organizations are inherently stupid, for clearly the Panopticon is not structured for learning.

In future posts I will explain how we may all--Warden as well as Prisoners--escape the Panopticon through better organizational design.

Tom Jackson
Portland, Oregon

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