The Panopticism of the Zoom-meeting

Text: Christina Vogsted Drange, Master International Public Policy, Årsenhet Medier og kommunikasjon

What does a Zoom-meeting and Jeremy Bentham’s prison-model, the Panopticon, have in common? The prospect of constant observation without participants knowing they are being observed. This phenomenon becomes a disciplinary measure for behaviour in spaces like Zoom-meetings and lectures, which have become a common phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea of the Panopticon

The Panopticon, a system accredited to philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was devised in a series of letters sent from Russia to a friend in England in 1787. In these letters, Bentham formulates a structure to be used for developing prisons, or other constructions where persons are to be kept under inspection. He describes a circular structure with cells all the way around, and a window in each cell toward the middle of the structure, as well as a window on the outside of the structure, to ensure that light shines through the cell, making the inhabitant constantly visible (Bentham, 1791, 4). In the middle stands a tower, or the inspector’s lodge, with windows all the way around the tower (Bentham, 1791, 4). The cells are separated and cannot communicate with each other, but the inspector can communicate with all the cells. The inspector(s) in the tower can observe the cells at all times, without being visible to the prisoners. The idea is that the prisoners, or whoever is occupying the cells are not aware of when they are being observed, which leads to the assumption that they could be observed at any time. Thus, their behavior is disciplined, as the prisoners must act as if they are under constant surveillance.

Model of Panopticon, Photo. Wikimedia Commons

This idea has in fact been used in several prisons, and has been famously discussed and elaborated by Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. Foucault sees the Panopticon as a means to power. Anyone can be sitting in the tower and exercise power over those imprisoned in the cells – there is a clear power-relation where the one who exercises power is hidden, and all the subjects are seen. Foucault argues that the central point of the Panopticon is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 1995, 201). The idea of the Panopticon has also been used in several dystopian novels, including and perhaps most famously, in George Orwell’s 1984. The idea of Big Brother, and its omnipresent quality, is a central principle of panopticism. The telescreens present in every household is a direct reference to the windows in the cells of Bentham’s Panopticon, meant to ensure that everyone follows the rules of the government, even in their own private homes (Orwell, 1950). There is even the Thought Police as a further disciplinary measure, who act as an extension of Big Brother’s power (Orwell, 1950). Furthermore, in the book-turned-movie franchise The Hunger Games, participants in the games are also being observed at all times, unsure of when the eye is on them (Collins, 2008). This constant surveillance acts as a disciplining measure for contestants, and in this example, violent and forceful methods are often used in addition to surveillance for contestants who challenge the rules (Collins, 2008).

While there are many examples of modern-day panopticism, including the constant surveillance of the Internet and use of social media, I will focus mainly on one fairly recent phenomenon that has appeared in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic. The phenomenon to which I am referring is the Zoom-meeting. Often used for lectures and seminars, but relevant in terms of work as well, the rise of Zoom, and particularly Zoom-meetings where the hosts require that participants keep their cameras on, has resulted in a form of panopticism. In Zoom-meetings where participants keep their cameras on, one may always be visible on someone’s screen, without necessarily knowing it. While there are of course differences between the literal Panopticon devised by Bentham and the form of panopticism present in the Zoom-meeting, elements of Bentham’s Panopticon are still present, which I would like to explore further.


Firstly, the omnipresence of the host, as well as everyone else in the meeting. While the original Panopticon was designed in order to keep the prisoners from observing each other, the Zoom-panopticism ensures that everyone may be able to see everyone else. This may in fact add to the discipline that follows from the potential constant observation by anyone in the meeting.

“While present in a virtual meeting like on Zoom, it is quite impossible to opt out of the Panopticon. You are either an observer, or you are being observed.”

Potential constant observation

The second point, which I mentioned briefly, is the potential of constant observation. You do not know if you appear on someone else’s screen. This leads to a sort of automatic discipline, where you are hyper-aware that others may be perceiving you, and you may become fixated on how they are perceiving you. This may lead to self-disciplining measures, like keeping your phone out of the frame to keep up the appearance of paying attention or limiting other behaviors that one would not be as aware of when one is not observed.

Plan of Bentham’s Panopticon Prison Model, drawn by Wiley Reveley in 1791, Photo. Wikimedia Commons

Observing vs. being observed

Finally, while the Zoom-meeting differs from the strict disciplinary mode of the Panopticon because there is an option to keep your camera off, and thus remain unobserved, however for others in the meeting who keep their camera on, you have then become a hidden exerciser of power. You may still observe them, and are thus contributing to the disciplining potential of the Zoom-meeting by being a passive observer. Other participants are then facing the potential constant surveillance by you. It is thus impossible to escape from the panoptic sphere in Zoom-meetings, as you will either be on the enforcing end (by watching others), or the observed end (by being watched). 

The implications of panopticism and Zoom

It is intriguing that we can recognize elements of a structure originally devised with the intention of simplifying the surveillance of prisoners and others who need to be kept under constant supervision in an application designed for virtual meetings. Interestingly, Bentham’s Panopticon was also developed with school in mind, though his conception of school is quite different from our contemporary idea of what school is and should be. Regardless of its intention, the threat, or possibility of constant surveillance does have behavioural implications, such as considering conforming to other’s behaviour, and avoiding standing out with potential socially undesirable actions. While present in a virtual meeting like on Zoom, it is quite impossible to opt out of the Panopticon. You are either an observer, or you are being observed. It is also possible to occupy both roles simultaneously, though this represents a marked difference from the Panopticon model, where if you are being observed, you cannot observe others. Being an observer does not necessarily indicate that you are actively policing others’ behaviour, however you do have the potential to constantly observe. Thus, you become a tacit enforcer of discipline for the observed. If you keep your camera on in a meeting, you are being observed, either actively or passively by others, and also yourself. You may become hyper-aware of how you look on camera, or you may fixate on how others look and their behaviour on camera, and perhaps react to the behaviour of others in a meeting. Ultimately, the power of observation and surveillance is ever-present in our daily lives, and Zoom-meetings are but one example.

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