Panopticon for the Masses

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Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: May 7, 2021

With security cameras in public places, police making their regular rounds in neighborhoods, proctors watching students during exams, and government organizations monitoring suspicious behavior online, surveillance is a part of our daily lives. Not only does such surveillance help spot and punish criminal behavior, it also has a psychological effect, and it is this effect that makes surveillance so effective. This is known as the Panopticon effect, first coined by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. 

What is the panopticon effect? 
In short, it means that when you know you can be watched, you will behave better. In a public place you are less likely to show bad behavior because you are aware that you can be watched. Thus, you correct your own behavior without the police or other enforcement agents having to intervene. It is this psychological self-policing mechanism (Foucault, 1997) that makes surveillance such a powerful tool.

Bentham first looked at the panopticon model in the context of prisons. And he articulated the dynamic, and requirements, needed to make the panopticon model work. Within this structure, the panopticon takes place inside an annular building of cell blocks, where at the center of the building a watchtower is positioned. Each person within a cell block (the subject) is sectioned off from the other ‘prisoners’ inside their cell block, leading to an individualization of the subjects. The officials within the tower (the observers) are invisible to the subjects, however they have total visibility of the subjects themselves, leading to an asymmetrical power relation. The end result of this surveillance structure is that the subjects create a self-regulating mechanism that replaces the anxiety of being watched and thus adhere to the institutional categories of evaluation and behave as is expected from them. As Foucault explained, “the major effect of the panopticon: to induce the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”. (Foucault, 1977; Jezierksi, 2006).

According to Foucault, the panopticon model is as fascinating as it is frightening, and it illustrates Foucault’s views on the unequal power dynamic between citizens and government in general in the best possible way.

A Panopticon for the masses
To achieve Bentham’s form of a panopticon model, architectural change is required. It is the well-known dome prisons that are architecturally designed specifically for this purpose. Security cameras achieve the same effect. The subjects can be viewed undisturbed by the observers without the subjects being able to engage in dialogue with them. To make the panopticon a reality, either a lot of money is needed for architectural redesign, or enough money is needed to install means of large-scale observation – such as security cameras. Permission to build and install, as well as the financial resources are  often in the hands of the government and larger organizations. 

The democratization of AI, however, can be a game-changer for this dynamic. A simple algorithm can be developed at relatively little cost and function as thousands of observers. Not only is this useful for governments in the analysis of big data, this same tool can now be used by citizens to create a panopticon effect. AI thus makes surveillance by citizens, Inverse Surveillance, possible.

We do not see inverse surveillance as a counter-action to surveillance by governments and other large organizations. We merely acknowledge that citizens can now, through AI, create a panopticon effect of their own and thereby take part in the activity of surveillance. This presents opportunities in democratizing surveillance AI that we think are worth exploring. Within this research, we recognize that the panopticon effect works and citizens too can successfully use it as a tool. 


  1. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish : The birth of the prison. Translated by Sheridan, A. New York: Pantheon Books.
  2. Jezierski, W. (2006). Monasterium panopticum. Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 40(1), 167-182.

On Utopian Thinking

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Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: April 23, 2021

Surveillance AI is not exactly considered to be a positive development in this day and age, with controversial stories like China’s mass surveillance headlining many news platforms. (Andersen, 2020; BBC, 2021). These news items evoke a negative perception on AI and reminds us of movies like iRobot, Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey, and Minority Report.This technophobic and dystopian view of Surveillance AI is part of the reason why ethical AI is a growing academic field. The focus of these studies lies primarily in preventing and countering this dystopian application of technology. However, despite the fact that these studies from a dystopian perspective are very much needed they mainly focus on limiting or governing these developments, and work from within existing structures and systems. It thus leaves little room for positive innovative developments.

Utopian Thinking
In order to get us to a future that opens up new possibilities in regards to Surveillance AI, instead of limiting them, we need a different approach to complement the dystopian work. Theory U teaches us that we need to be critical of our frame of mind, and preferably break out of our institutional bubble.This would enable innovation and accelerate the emerging future to take shape. (Scharmer, & Senge, 2016). We thus need a more out-of-the-box type of approach that is not limited by existing institutional structures. This approach stands at the center of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516), imagining a perfect world in comparison to the world we are living in. Regardless of its attainability we focus on the thinking method itself.

Utopian Thinking has been at the foundation of many great technological innovations, for example the World Wide Web, and smartphones. Not to mention groundbreaking ideas, such as the theory of relativity, and the apartheid abolition (Hök, 2019). According to Brown (2015), it also facilitates collective thinking, which is essential for tackling complex problems “in these times of transformational change” (p.1). Bell and Pahl (2018) add that co-production – like using a thinktank for example – is a Utopian Thinking method. According to them (Bell & Pahl, 2018) Utopian Thinking methods are essential for reshaping the world as we know it for the better. In addition it encourages the public to become involved in the process (Fernando et al., 2018), which is precisely the type of citizen involvement we deem to be important for design, development, and implementation of Inverse Surveillance AI.

It is for these reasons that we approach our research from a utopian perspective, and therefore we encourage, imaginative, original, out of the box thinking, which follows the example of great thinkers that stood at the basis of monumental innovations and ideas (Hök, 2019). We need to look past our current way of thinking within existing structures, and build a new vision of what is socially acceptable in order to drive the growth and implementation of Surveillance AI (Harari, 2018). As Albert Einstein, emphasized: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” (Kataria, 2019).


  1. Andersen, R. (2020). The Panopticon Is Already Here. The Atlantic. Retrieved from
  2. BBC. (2021). Uighur-identifying patent is ‘deeply disturbing’. BBC News. Retrieved from
  3. Bell, D.M., & Pahl, K. (2018). Co-production: Towards a utopian approach. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 21(1), 105-117.
  4. Brown, V.A. (2015). Utopian thinking and the collective mind: Beyond transdisciplinarity. Futures : The Journal of Policy, Planning and Futures Studies, 65, 209-216.
  5. Fernando, J. W., Burden, N., Ferguson, A., O’Brien, L. V., Judge, M., & Kashima, Y. (2018). Functions of Utopia: How Utopian Thinking Motivates Societal Engagement. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 44(5), 779-792.
  6. Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century (First ed.). Random House USA.
  7. Hök, B.W.  (2019). Are great innovations driven by utopian ideas? Journal of Innovation Management, 6(4), 98-116.
  8. Kataria, V. (2019). 3 Lessons from Albert Einstein on Problem Solving. Medium, The Startup. Retrieved from
  9. More, T. (1516). Utopia. Retrieved from Planet Ebook:
  10. Scharmer, C., & Senge, P. (2016). Theory U : Leading from the future as it emerges : The social technology of presencing (Second ed.).

Conceptualizing Inverse Surveillance

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Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: April 23, 2021

In our new project, we focus on unwrapping the concept of Inverse surveillance, and how it can be used to empower citizens with AI technology. Since we wanted to place surveillance in the hands of citizens, the first name that popped in mind to label this utopian vision on surveillance was ‘Inverse Surveillance’. After a quick Google search, we found out that this term has actually been used before, so we did a deep dive into the literature. We soon learned that Inverse Surveillance is often used as a synonym (or translation) for sousveillance (Mann, 2004), and also mentioned in relation to counter-surveillance. However, neither of these concepts fully captures what we were going for. We decided to flesh out this concept a bit more and write down what we think are the main distinctions between the different types of surveillance. 

For those interested, we will publish how we came to these distinctions and our definition of inverse surveillance based on the literature in another post, but in this post, we will focus on the table below, and our conclusions.

SousveillanceInverse Surveillance
SubjectBottomTopTop & BottomTop
ActionSurveillanceEvading & UnderminingSurveillance & gaining more insight and involvementSurveillance
GoalControlling and Influencing subjectCounter-reaction against surveillance of citizensCounter-reaction against surveillance of citizensControlling and influencing subject
Power DynamicCentralization of PowerChallenging institutional power asymmetriesReversing the balance of power (hierarchical sousveillance); levelling the balance of power (personal sousveillance).Democratisation of Power


Although ‘surveillance’ is also an umbrella term for the other concepts, in its colloquial use surveillance refers to The systematic monitoring (surveillance) of citizens (bottom) by governments or bigger organizations (top), in order to influence and control them (goal) and thus exercise power (power dynamic) (Ball et al., 2012; Hier & Greenberg, 2014; Lyon, 2007).


In the case of counter-surveillance, citizens (bottom) actively evade and undermine surveillance by governments and bigger organizations (top) as a counter-reaction to the surveillance of citizens (goal) and by doing so are challenging institutional power asymmetries (power dynamic) (Monahan, 2006).


Sousveillance happens when citizens (bottom) are surveilling governments and bigger organizations (top) with the goal to gain more insight and involvement into surveillance, as a counter-reaction against the surveillance of citizens (goal) and by doing so reversing or leveling the power balance (power dynamic) (Mann, 2004; Mann et al., 2002). 

Conceptualizing a fourth surveillance type

The exact definition of sousveillance is quite broad. Some articles focus on sousveillance as a means of gaining insight into surveillance done by governments and bigger organizations by surveilling the agent itself. In most articles, sousveillance often takes a ‘stance against’ surveillance. In other articles, all surveillance activities in which citizens partake in surveillance are included in the sousveillance concept. 

The latter is a bit closer to what we aim to focus on. Thus according to existing terminology, our project would fall under sousveillance. We, however, wanted to make one clear distinction between the ‘anti’ movement also present within sousveillance. And thus we decided to separate the term inverse surveillance from sousveillance and give it a bit more depth. Whether we can view our definition of inverse surveillance as part of the umbrella term sousveillance or not is up for debate but not what we are focussing on. 

Our definition
Inverse Surveillance

In the case of inverse surveillance, citizens (bottom) surveil governments and bigger organizations (top) in order to control and influence (goal) and thus promote transparency and equality, and by doing so democratizing power (power dynamic).

This definition is not definite yet, and it might change during the research. But we wanted to offer a clear starting point for fleshing out a new surveillance concept. 

What we want to emphasize with this distinction is that our perspective on surveillance as a method is closer to surveillance than it is to sousveillance. In our case the focus is not surveillance itself, surveillance is seen as a mere tool that we deem helpful in exercising power, control, and influencing the subject. The difference with surveillance, however, and what puts us in line with sousveillance is that in our case surveillance is done from the bottom to the top.

Facilitating Inverse Surveillance through Artificial Intelligence

Our suggestion to deepen the definition of Inverse Surveillance is the product of technological advancements through which ideas like these are becoming more realistic for the first time in history. In Foucault’s (1977) book, surveillance can only be used by those in power, due to the extensive resources needed to conduct large-scale surveillance (for example, by having a police force that can patrol). With the rise of AI, we no longer need hundreds of eyes to watch data, videos, or images. This makes AI a realistic tool not only for organizations to monitor individuals but also for individuals monitoring organizations, without needing the extensive resources organizations have. For this reason, our project focuses on employing AI to facilitate Inverse Surveillance.

Utopian Vision on Inverse Surveillance AI 

In this project, we focus on a utopian way of thinking. We realize that there are also many side effects to AI such as ethical complications, and these studies from a dystopian perspective are therefore also much needed. However, within this project, we are mainly looking for solutions, and innovative ideas to get this concept off the ground. Thus, from a utopian perspective, we focus not only on the possibilities of inverse surveillance but also on the broader role AI can play in society in this regard.

Throughout this project, our definition of inverse surveillance as elaborated upon here will serve as a starting point for our research. Building on this, we will focus on the utopian vision and the practical application of AI in the context of Inverse Surveillance. 


  1. Ball, K., Haggerty, K., & Lyon, D. (2012). Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (Routledge international handbooks). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge
  2. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.
  3. Hier, S., & Greenberg, J. (2014). Surveillance power, problems, and politics. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  4. Lyon, D. (2007). Surveillance studies : An overview. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.
  5. Mann, S. (2004). Sousveillance: inverse surveillance in multimedia imaging. Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference on Multimedia, New York, NY, USA, October 10-16, 2004. 620-627. DOI: 10.1145/1027527.1027673.
  6. Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2002). Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 331-355.
  7. Monahan, T. (2006). Counter-surveillance as Political Intervention? Social Semiotics, 16(4), 515-534.