Thomas Mathiesen (1997) argues that control through surveillance has developed beyond Foucault’s panopticon model. The panopticon allows the few to monitor the many, but today the media increasingly allow the many to monitor the few. Mathiesen argues that in late modernity, there is a significant increase in surveillance from below, which he calls the ‘synopticon’ – where everybody watches everybody else.
An example of synoptic surveillance is where the public monitor each other, as with video cameras mounted on dash boards or cycle helmets to collect evidence in the event of accidents. This may warn other road users that their behaviour is being monitored and result in them exercising self-discipline. For an example of synoptic surveillance in action see below, and you might also like to check out this Facebook page devoted to people caught doing illegal things on camera.
Thompson (2000) argues that powerful groups such as politicians fear that the media’s surveillance of them may uncover damaging information about them, and this acts as a form of social control over their activities.
Discussion Question: Does fear of surveillance and thus fear of getting caught and publicly shamed prevent politicians from doing deviant and criminal acts?
The synopticon suggests that ordinary citizens might have more power to ‘control the controllers’ – as with the example of activists filming the police at protests. However, this bottom-up scrutiny can still be stopped by more classic law enforcement such as the police confiscating cameras from ‘citizen journalists’.
Are people more likely to obey the law because of synoptic surveillance?
Does the increase in synoptic surveillance mean elites in particular are more likely to obey the law?