Wednesday, April 13, 2011


What is the ‘Information Panopticon’? Explain with reference to the use of ICT in the organisation of work since the 80s.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham is credited with the idea of a Panopticon, which was a kind of prison constructed in such a way so that all the prisoners felt that they were being monitored at all times when in fact they were not. The idea was that "total" surveillance would eventually eliminate undesired behaviour. While Bentham's idea was literal, it has since become a metaphor for any type of system in which surveillance can or is total. The information panopticon represents a form of centralized power that uses information and communication technology (ICT) as observational tools and control mechanisms.
The call centre has become the paradigmatic workplace of the twenty-first-century service economy in the way that the car factory was emblematic of twentieth-century industrialism. This is so for a number of reasons, including the rapid growth of call-centre employment; it is a form of work that has become ubiquitous in the modern economy. It is also because call centres embody some of the main themes that have arisen in research and discussion of work in recent years. The combination of information and communication technology used in call centres means it is possible for managers to monitor remotely worker performance and productivity, embodying the themes of panopticon control and surveillance. This monitoring ranges from keystroke counting, telephone service observation whereby statistics are gathered on the duration, time between, and number of calls, telephone call accounting, "peeking" on to workers computer screens and into electronic mail, to the use of "active" or "magic" badges that can keep track of an employee's movements and locations. Increasingly, computers are being used to set tasks and performances for all levels of worker.
Today, close to a billion workers are surveilled electronically in workplaces all over the world. Management often views surveillance as an attempt to achieve certain organizational goals better by more fully utilizing time and other resources. But from the employees’ perspective, surveillance can also be understood as an attempt to create new power relationships based on an electronic version of Bentham's panopticon.

But surveillance still has negative effects on employees.  The main  reason  not  to  engage  in  surveillance  is  because  it  affects worker behaviour.
This can  be related to the workplace setting, when employees feel as though they  need  to  act  one  way  at  work  and  another  at  home,  and  it  leads  to  confusion.  If there were no surveillance tactics, workers could act as they  normally would without  the  pressure  to  act  in  a  specific manner  all  the  time. 
It has been noted  in surveys  that employees who are monitored  by  computers  are  more  likely  to  suffer  from  health,  stress  and  moral  problems. 15 For example, one  investigation compared survey responses  of  50  clerical  employees whose work was monitored  by  computer with  responses  of  94  non-monitored  employees who  performed  comparable  jobs.  Self reported stress was higher  among  the monitored workers. Also  in  another  study  762  telecommunications  workers,  who  were  monitored  reported  feeling significantly higher  levels of  tension, anxiety,  anger, depression, and  fatigue  then non-monitored employees.

The bottom-line is that constant surveillance - or at least the perception of constant surveillance - "coerces by means of observation."

Govind Menon

 Communication work and electronic surveillance: A model for predicting panoptic effects Communication Monographs -1996, Author: Carl Botan
Panopticon Dreams:
The Nightmarish Effects of Workplace Surveillance 


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