The Big Ideas of 2012

Joel Bakan: The Panopticon

Power of the new media.
Joel Bakan: The Panopticon

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

The Panopticon (which means all-seeing) is a model prison devised by British philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.

Its structure, a radical configuration with observation posts in the center and inmates' cells and common areas around the periphery, was designed to ensure guards could always see inmates but never be seen by them. As a result, inmates had to presume guards might be watching them at any given moment, which meant, according to Bentham, that they would have to behave as if they were being watched all the time. In this way, the Panopticon, by its very structure, created the effect of total surveillance, while allowing for actual surveillance to be intermittent and even absent.

The Panopticon was never built, but Bentham's idea was revived by French philosopher Michel Foucault two centuries later to illustrate what he called the "perfection of power." Power was perfected within the Panopticon, Foucault argued, because it did not have to be exercised by guards and prison authorities. Inmates "themselves [became] the bearers of power" within a structure that had the effect of "creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it."

The Panopticon is helpful for understanding the new power and possibilities of social media for kid marketers. On social media, "people influence people," according to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. "It's no longer just about messages … broadcasted out by companies, but increasingly about information … shared between friends." Social network friends market to each other, in other words, as "viral" tactics (also known as "word-of-mouth" and "buzz" tactics) seamlessly weave brands and commercial messages into communications among them. Users become "fans" and "friends" of brands, and get their friends to do the same; they share across their networks branded contests, quizzes, games, applications, and "widgets" – mini-applications whose viral power makes them, according to one industry insider, possibly the highest expression so far of online marketing in the post-advertising age. They create branded videos, songs, stories, poems, and photographs at company websites and virally distribute them to friends. And these are just a few examples from a huge and growing array of viral strategies.

Marketing as marketing disappears within the viral networks of social media platforms. Boundaries are broken down between marketers and kids (as kids market to each other); between content and advertising (as advertising now infuses, rather than interrupts, content); and between kids' lives and entertainment (as their lives now become the content of that entertainment). It is truly the "perfection of [marketers'] power." Kids, like the prisoners in the Panopticon, now bear the power marketing holds over them, and the marketers, like the Panopticon's guards, drop from view, their power now automatic and self-executing, all the greater for its invisibility.

Joel Bakan is a lawyer and professor of law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His first book, The Corporation, is a celebrated international bestseller and was made into a feature documentary film in 2003.

16 comments on the article “Joel Bakan: The Panopticon ”

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Some nice ideas, but not focussed on the "Debt Crisis"
Perhaps Adbusters is the wrong site for discussing OWS.
Go to for more interesting discussion.


Debt is only used as a tool to instil fear/panic so that the fear/panic mongerer's can preserve their seats of power/persuasion. Its all manufactured. Without fear you can do whatever you want which = freedom.


I founded a company once, sports action, that entire industry is based on hero worship by children, so I took it upon myself to always be challenging our "target market" to think for themselves, be artists themselves, and placed no pressure on our team to risk their lives or to lie about what the company was up too. We had to get investors to stay afloat and that opened the door for me eventually being forced out. Investors didn't want the truth to be told through our marketing campaign. 7 years later and they're still lying to the kids in their ads and social media, but the kids don't care, they just want to be a part of something, some group they can look up too. Not a lot of ADBUSTERS in the extreme sports industry, I'd like to see more.

I say all this simply because I watched the point of this article first hand, as I'm sure many of you have, and I agree it can be bad, but if the marketers are great artists with great big hearts, well, friend me up!


What do you mean they need all the help they can get locked in here with us...


I fully agree. My job, in part, is to exploit the new concepts of social currency and virality. I think the thing that sticks in my craw the most is the fact that many young marketers is the notion of value exchange, the idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the brand and the consumer in which both are sharing something that the other wants or needs outside of the consumer/producer relationship. it's patently absurd, but so many of my colleagues genuinely believe that they are doing something good, or at least better than the old model of advertising and communications.

The wider question, one which I think we will increasingly have to ask over the next few years, is how far do we exploit and engage with the new models of non-linear communications as campaigners and as change architects. Make no mistake, NGO's all over the world are slowly using exactly the same techniques that advertising agencies are to spread ideas and messages. The article above criticises not just the use of the platform but the platforms themselves; should we isolate ourselves from the massive potential for change that social and new media gives us? I personally don't think so, but we do need to work out where the lines are.


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