Science’s Effect on Creating a Subtle Panopticon

Culture is what defines us. And by “us”, I mean humanity. Although different groups of people have different cultures, it is generally the same elements that constitute culture. Those elements are products of people, and each element has a different purpose. In this article, I will discuss the influences of science and technology on culture and how it contributes to mechanisms of the ruling class.

Over the years, there have been many different versions of the definition of culture. For George Simmel, culture was a method of cultivating individuals. For Karl Marx, it was a way to justify inequality. According to him, culture was produced by the superstructure for the infrastructure. Frankfurt School and Birmingham School also had different approaches to this matter, taking their fundamentals from Marx.

From the materialistic perspective, the economy lays at the center of human society. There is the ruling class and the ruled class. There are workers, and there are employers. And in a materialistic society, lower-class people are reduced to a state of slavery in which they constantly need to work to satisfy their basic needs. And for a long period, they were disposable, meaning that their lives actually did not mean anything for the superstructure as long as the production continued.

However, there came a moment in history, that made the superstructure rethink the position of infrastructure. While everyone calls that moment the “industrial revolution“, I abstain from using the word revolution for something so destructive.

The so-called “Industrial Revolution” had great impacts on human society and culture. One of the changes that came with the industrial capitalist system was the mandatory education for children (to cultivate skilled workers). This resulted in an idea of childhood that is close to the modern definition. Susan Neiman, author of the book Why Grow Up? Subversive Thought for an Infantile Age claims that the definition of childhood was totally different before the mandatory education because the children had a more meaningful contribution to society at an early age. Before this period, children used to work with adults in whatever way they can, as simple as sweeping workshops or carrying stuff around.

With the introduction of mandatory education, a modern idea was born that claims the period of childhood in fact takes a much longer time. However, this was only the case for the children of middle or upper-class families. Children in lower-class families or in “3rd world countries” still had to grow up earlier than others. Industrial growth had many other effects on society but since it is not the main subject of this paper, I will not engage in more discussion about this matter.

It is at this point, I will try to include the metaphor of the panopticon that was coined by Michel Foucault, influenced by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and how the panopticon is constantly evolving with the changes in our culture, especially through science.

Michel Foucault used the metaphor of the panopticon as a disciplinary mechanism. In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, he describes the panopticon as:

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.[1]

The Panopticon is utilized in a way to make sure the system works uninterrupted and perfectly, whether it is a school, prison, hospital, or factory. With the advanced technology today, we do not need a panoptical building because there are various other methods of creating this effect. But it is not just about a building. According to Foucault, panopticon is a political technology and should not be associated with any specific purpose. (Foucault 205)

So, what is the relation between terms like the panopticon, punishment, discipline and culture, education, science?

Science is simply an empirical study conducted to gain knowledge about the world. It has various branches and various methods for each branch. And according to the common belief, science is done for the benefit of people, the improvement of living conditions.

Do you trust science?
Thousands march in Washington, D.C. to fight for science. Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash

Famous Australian philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has a different idea on the purpose and beneficialness of science. According to Feyerabend, science has turned into something similar to religion and it has become increasingly oppressive. In his book Farewell to Reason, he defended his idea in a way that enrages many defenders of science:

I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education, education to a humanitarian point of view included, which most of the time consists of turning wonderful young people into colorless and self-righteous copies of their teachers; it becomes manifest in the nuclear threat, the constant increase in the number and power of deadly weapons and the readiness of some so-called patriots to start a war compared with which the holocaust will shrink into insignificance. It shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own sorry image; in the infantile megalomania of some of our physicians who blackmail their patients with fear, mutilate them and then persecute them with large bills; in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty. As far as I am concerned there exists no difference between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind. (Feyerabend309)

This extremely controversial statement brings together Auschwitz workers and scientists. Scientific materialism increased so much importance that moral values are almost disregarded. In fact, the world is dominated by the defenders of science, technology, and improvement. Although there are still some tribes in the remote places of the Earth that are living in primitive ways, away from the “contributions of science”, their lives are under constant threat from the rest of the world.

Indigenous people in the Amazons are fighting for their survival because their trees are being cut down to make way for farming and agriculture. [2]

In other news, the Adivasi people of India are in clash with the government because the government decided to plant trees to reduce the carbon emission.[3] While planting trees looks like a good idea, the government is only worried about efficiency. Adivasi people, on the other hand, states that planting trees will result in a vast monoculture where no other plant could grow because the trees have dense roots. In the end, animals who depend on different vegetation will have to migrate.

These are just two of thousands of news. Who can claim that the results of science and technology are all good for humanity and that “one” way of living is better than the other?

The creator of the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham defended that religious affairs should be separated from state affairs in order to decrease the oppressive effect of religion on people. Like him, Paul Feyerabend defends that science and state should work separately. In the Conference for the Defence of Culture, Feyerabend made a speech which was later published, and in this speech, he argued:

The most important consequence is that there must be a formal separation between state and science just as there is now a formal separation between state and church. Science may influence society but only to the extent to which any political or other pressure group is permitted to influence society.[4]

Today, most scientists are working for official institutions or private enterprises that are bounded by official laws. But I believe the biggest problem for science today is that it has no guidance and direction. There may be scientists that are working to create a “better” world, find a solution for the ecological crisis that we are in, but most of them are still working to build a weapon that will kill more people, or find a way to reach Mars. In the end, the stronger group of scientists (economically) claims their dominance over the weaker ones.

Is science not a threat to human culture when it is not directed well and when it is not a democratic entity? And the worst of all is the normalization of scientific views and the effects of this normalization. By normalization, I mean the acceptance of scientific methods or believing the superiority of science. If one claims that science is not as innocent as it looks and blames science for the ecological crises we face, that person is immediately “excommunicated” from society. This is the part where the panopticon comes into reality.

Michel Foucault made a distinction between a leper colony and a plague town in his book Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. With the increased effect of science and technology in our culture, it became easier for the panopticon to operate. Everyone is included in the system, everyone is respecting the system, and the hierarchy of surveillance is working perfectly.

The most important thing for a panopticon is that the people in the system act normally. In the classical sense of the panopticon, people would be aware of their state, not knowing if they are being watched at a given moment but know that they can be. This results in a better performance for the panoptic system.

Foucault explains this as:

The Panopticon’s solution to this problem is that the productive increase of power can be assured only if, on the one hand, it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest possible way, and if, one the other hand, it functions outside these sudden, violent, discontinuous forms that are bound up with the exercise of sovereignty. (Foucault 208)

In today’s scientific and technological panopticon, we do not feel observed. While we use our computers or our smartphones, we do not think whether or not someone is watching our actions. We use technological gadgets that tell us about our heart rate, our location at any given moment, and much other significant information. And we put so much trust in science and technology that it eventually enables us to use those gadgets. Because if no-one trusted science, nobody would use those gadgets either. And trusting science is something that is thought in schools starting from the age as early as four years old.


[1] Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism” from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 2 no. 1, 2008, p. 1-12. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/252435.

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-latin-america-48845015

[3] https://undark.org/2020/01/06/india-indigenous-trees/

[4] Feyerabend, Paul (1975). How to defend society against science. _Radical Philosophy_ 11 (1):3-9.