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Business as Usual: The Information Panopticon and the Workplace

Tango is a practice already ready for struggle. It knows about taking sides, positions, risks. It has the experience of domination/resistance from within. Tango, stretching the colonized stereotypes of the latino-macho-Catholic fatalism, is a language of decolonization. So, pick and choose. Improvise. Hide away. Run after them. Stay still. Move at an astonishing speed. Shut up. Scream a rumor. Turn around. Go back without returning. Upside down. Let your feet do the thinking. Be comfortable in your restlessness. Tango. - Marta E. Savigliano "Tango and the Political Economy of Passion"


The above image and text is from the art project "Tango" by Robert Lawrence.


            The information panopticon represents a form of centralized power that uses information and communication technology (ICT) as observational tools and control mechanisms. English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham developed the original architecture of the panopitcon as a prison. The structure consisted of a centralized tower surrounded by a circular building divided into prison cells. Benthams concept was to maximize the number of prisoners that can be observed by one individual within the tower. Within The Information Panopticon, Zuboff uses the architectural strategies of the panopticon as a metaphor to describe how information systems translate, record, and display human behaviorwith a degree of illumation that would have exceeded even Benthams most outlandish fantasies (Zuboff 322). The information panopticon critiques how technological systems use transparency to assert power, control, and authority over users.

            Inherent within many new technological and informational devices is the ability to network. Whether it is a personal computer or database systems, these applications often promote forms of interconnectivity that require a centralized control center (Zuboff 328). In early telecommunication experiments by inventors like Alexander Bell and Samuel Morse, the idea of transmission was essentially linear. A message was sent from one location to another, traveling down a wire. As innovation progressed, communication began to operate through various access nodes within a network. The physical locations of the switching and control centers began to operate in very similar ways to the central surveillance tower of the panopticon.

            As these ICTs are introduced into the workplace, managers and employees are discovering the hierarchical risks within information authority. Zuboff explains that these information centers help managers in a workplace to revamp their methods of communication, invite feedback, listen, coach, facilitate, manage many objectives, encourage autonomy, provide vision (Zuboff 232). The engagements a manager previously dealt with in a face-to-face setting can now be administered through a system that operates in a ubiquitous way. In other words, technology can be used as a form of power that displays itself automatically and continuously

            In a work setting, this method of control is different to that of the original panopticon because many ICT systems function as transparent architectures. The technological knowledge needed to understand how one is being surveyed is not as apparent as in Benthams prison. The techniques of control within informational and networked systems often appear pragmatic, immediate, and technical (Zuboff 324). This places the employees in a position of passive and obedient, where they no longer know or understand exactly how panoptic power is being enforced. Consequently, the administrative actions within the workplace can appear paranoid and non-specified approaches to security.

            The responsibility of this technical authority does begin to question what ethical, social, and professional surveillance is acceptable in response to ICT technology in the workplace. Surveillance in the work place is not necessarily new; it has long been around in the form of corporate policy, collective behavior and social traditions. Zuboff describes how maintaining faith that undergirds imperative control is hard work psychologically demanding, time-consuming, and inevitably prone to ambiguity (Zuboff 360). The capacity of these surveillance systems will accomplish some goals, and create entirely new unresolved problems: what to do with all of this personal data? Similar to the Panoptic prison, the information panopticon does focus on creating a vulnerable, defenseless user. However, the employees are not prisoners, they are not without some sense of control, and certainly should question the business practices. The fight remains within the users, the employees, to not passively participate in surveillance but rather to actively place responsibility on management and administration to effectively organize. As ICTs continue to act as control mechanisms within the workplace, management should tirelessly redevelop systems that respond not only to power but also the emotional, the personal, and complexity of human behaviors.

Work Cited

Zuboff S., In the Age of the Smart Machine : The Future of Work and Power, BasicBooks, 1988, pp. 315-361



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