The accusation that Tesco use electronic tags to monitor the productivity of their workers sounds like something from a dystopian novel. The tags reportedly measure how fast shelf stackers work, giving them a target that is difficult to meet if one even takes a bathroom break. Clearly, this amounts to poor working conditions, but what else does it say about society? Nothing new, unfortunately, and nothing that Foucault’s chapter ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish hadn’t already said in the 1970s.
The Panopticon that Foucault discusses is a building designed by Jeremy Bentham, comprised of a circular building around a central observation tower. The design allows watchmen to observe the people incarcerated in the circular building, without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. This means that they could be being watched at any time, so has the effect of constant surveillance. Surveillance becomes a constant, unverifiable threat, so that the inmates effectively watch themselves – surveillance is internalized, and thus architecture shapes subjectivity.
While the technology used by Tesco is electronic, rather than architectural, the effect is the same: people are monitored constantly, causing the internalization of surveillance that results in a self-regulating workforce. It’s significant, though, that the Panopticon was originally designed to be a prison, rather than a way to monitor the minimum-wage employees of a multi-billion pound company.* Constant surveillance, or panopticism, originally reserved for convicted criminals, is now how companies think it is appropriate to treat their workforce – something that has been discussed in this Guardian blog.
Comments on online news articles reveal an indignant public response to this latest Tesco development. But why? According to Foucault, surveillance has long been an integral part of the architecture of society, dating back to a gradual change in the function of punishment beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the increasing importance of efficiency and productivity in a new industrial age, execution became an uneconomical use of the body and ceased to be the most effective method of punishment. Foucault’s explanation of Panopticism in Discipline and Punish reads:
“If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape … if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.”
For Foucault, the carceral society of Western Europe is one that exercises power through total surveillance. This societal structure, he says, is not the result of various social actors, but a process that has come about due to its practicality and utility. It is inherently linked to the structure of capitalist society: panopticism includes the ability to “obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost” and to extend this power as far as possible.
There is a difference between collecting a huge amount of data about people and the original Panopticon architecture: whilst in the Panopticon building, there is only the threat of constant surveillance, the data collected by Tesco provides an overview of the tagged employee’s activity. The data combines maximum observation with a summary of work rates that can be quickly analysed and responded to, meaning changes to working conditions or instructions that increase productivity can be made constantly, making it a particularly cost-effective and absolute method of surveillance.
This worrying example of the increased surveillance society is subjected to is contributed to by political issues such as the “war on terror,” including the recent murder in Woolwich which has prompted the government to step up internet surveillance: when citizens murder each other, especially in public and during the day, this shows that discipline has not been internalized, and surveillance is accordingly increased. However worrying this trend of increased surveillance is, it can be used to highlight how relevant critical theory is in helping us better understand the societal conditions we live in.
*It was thought that the Panopticon could be useful for any institution where surveillance was important, such as schools and hospitals. However, no buildings completely faithful to the Bentham Panopticon have ever been built, although many prisons contain Panoptic influence.