is a theoretical prison – the Panopticon – in which prisoners are entirely
exposed, at all times to a guard tower. The guard tower is in darkness from the
prisoners’ point of view, while the cells are always brightly lit. This means
that the prisoners never know if they are being observed and for how long,
while the guards can see any misbehaviour immediately it begins to occur.
The idea behind the Panopticon is that a single watchman can watch as many prisoners as the prison can hold, while the prisoners cannot know when the watchman is there and when not. The prisoners – in theory – will assume that they are always being watched and behave accordingly, essentially beginning to self-regulate their actions.
However, this – as with so many of these idealistic theories – does not take into account the vagaries of human nature. Prisoners are, almost by definition, criminals (political detainees excepted in some cases), and criminals become so by disobeying the rules and pushing the boundaries of civilised behaviour. This means that no sooner are they used to being in their exposed cells, they will begin to work on finding out the routine of their watchman, testing the boundaries with small infringements that will earn them only minor punishments or verbal reprimands.
People tend to become complacent and fall into routines. Any watchman who has not faced any serious trouble before will quickly set a daily pattern that a cunning criminal will quickly pick up upon. Therefore, it will become harder and harder for the watchman to maintain control, needing to be lucky or vigilant all the time, while it would take the criminal one, relatively short, instance of luck to breach his cell or attack the guard.
Otherwise, again human nature being what it is, the prisoners will become accustomed to the idea of being constantly watched, and start relaxing their behaviour, allowing themselves to become lax and slovenly with the tasks they are meant to perform and bending the rules that they are meant to uphold.
In both of these scenarios, our solo watchman would have to remain impossibly vigilant and mete out the harshest of punishments for the most minor infractions – defeating the whole point of having one watchman monitoring a mass of prisoners in this manner…So, the idea of a Panopticon can be extrapolated out to a surveillance society, in which augmented reality, facial recognition and complete CCTV coverage is used to watch the whole population – it simply will not work, because a) there are not enough people to watch all the footage and b) people will adapt their behaviour to suit their own wants and desires.