Panoptic Assembly

We people of Earth have developed and retained better methods for pretty much anything we have set out to accomplish in our time; as 21st Century people, we have ways of traveling, speaking, eating, and entertaining ourselves that our thousand-year-old ancestors would not be able to comprehend. Similarly, the argument could be made, when focusing on production methods, that part of why mass production exists as it does today has been the development of certain protocols which make the production process more efficiently managed, by physically laying out the production process in a way that one person could manage it all from one central point. The pinnacle of this production discipline is best seen in the assembly line; that great creation we hear about which is commonly attributed to Henry Ford. While it is obvious Ford himself did not create the assembly line, his ability to jump start the idea may have never seen the light of day if he did not have the help of some great minds before him, like the creator of the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham. When reading “Panopticism,” by Michel Foucault, one may get the impression that Bentham’s structure was one focused on surveillance, entrapment, and civil punishment; however, the applications of the Panopticon are a great many, as Bentham suggests in his original writings. The Panopticon was a tremendous addition to developing the assembly line design because productivity was improved through a new model of supervision.

Whatever improves productivity is a great addition to developing the assembly line. Different forms of the assembly line can be seen for many centuries past, but the first inception of the modern day assembly line can be attributed to meat-packing companies of the 19th century, which employed the idea of moving trolleys, worked by stationary employees, only responsible for cutting certain parts of the animal (“Work”). When the Panopticon was created it also spawned the idea that factories could maintain efficient surveillance as well as efficient labor. Bentham gives weight to the idea of using the Panopticon for laborious deeds, “A man who, being engaged in some sort of business that was easy to learn, and doing pretty well with as many hands as he was able to get upon the ordinary terms, might hope to do better still with greater number, whom he could get upon much greater terms” (Barrow). Today, prisons put inmates to work doing daily chores like laundry, cooking, and janitorial services; a Florida prison even had inmates working to disassemble and recycle used computer parts (Cusac). It would seem that jails are certainly taking advantage of Bentham’s ideas by putting their inmates to work. These examples reinforce the idea that the Panopticon was not simply a structure that exercised power, but it used that power to further benefit the role of the employer; the use of power in this way influenced the entrance of labor into the jail system. “Bentham imagined that the Panopticon penitentiary would be run by a contractor who would have little interest in the inmates beyond the exploitation of their labor. He expected that this contractor would be a person already involved in managing manufactories” (Zimmerman). Once the managers had enough control over the inmates, by subjecting them to a constant watchful eye, they could further dominate the relationship by making them work. At this point it was not difficult at all for jails to get their inmates to work because a good lot of them would be scared by the constant surveillance; most will work without much invested effort, and those who don’t may be punished, furthering the fear felt by other inmates. This same relationship, influenced by fear, could be seen in a company that employs the same surveillance techniques as the Panopticon.

Perhaps this tells us that people are afraid of being constantly watched and criticized while working. Working in a Panopticon means you are in constant competition with your coworker; if you’re getting paid, you want to do well so you don’t lose your job; if you’re an inmate, you want to do well so you aren’t further punished. This constant competition furthers the stress a worker may feel while working in a Panopticon. Fear cannot be productive to efficient work as it draws one’s attention away from the ultimate goal of producing. The worker’s ambition to do better than his coworker in an environment dominated by surveillance, where their work is likely to be frequently checked, is a great part of what increases the productivity of an assembly line.

The arrangement of the Panopticon is quite possibly the biggest change in the relationship of the employer and the employee. Ideally, the centrally located manager would have instant visibility of the floor, allowing for “automatic power” over the workers, as Foucault puts it. This is where the Panopticon is best applied to the assembly line. The structure was built with maximum surveillance in mind, which is something any business owner can appreciate. James Marquardt sums up the new relationship nicely, “Power is not something wielded indiscriminately by the assembly line supervisor against the workers on the factory floor or the prison guard and warden against a prison’s inmates. It is much more subtle. The Panopticon combination of ‘permanent visibility and invisibility’ – is ‘the perfection of power.’” Without a centrally-located tower, which allowed anyone (or no one at all) to have instant visibility of the premises, the Panopticon would not have applied to the development of the assembly line as much as it did.

Another great feature of the Panopticon is that the structure is divided by cell like rooms which apply directly to the ideal assembly line. Factories that compile complex machines or devices would find great benefit in the conveniently located rooms of the Panopticon. Each space allows for a definite piece of the assembly process to reside, which makes it very easy for assembly designers to configure the process just by looking at all the sectionalized spaces the Panopticon offers. The assembly process is infinite. Manufacturers are in the business of creating anything and everything. Every assembly line demands different configuration and setup. Recent research has been done to fit the assembly process into what the industry calls “general models;” these models summarize the process of manufacturing into a flowchart (Aihu).

Many ideas have come together over time in order for the assembly line process to come together recently, and it is not a perfect process. The Panopticon was a structure was a greatly accessible structure which, in essence, experimented with surveillance and the power it can hold on us. With the introduction of machines, the assembly process is becoming cheaper and easier than ever before. If machines are doing all the work, surveillance may play a major role in the repair and maintenance of machines, and allow for quick diagnostic information needed by mechanics. Regardless, the hard work and tireless effort of great men was what allowed for this revolution to take place. Panopticism was an unlikely suitor to the assembly process because many saw it as simply the perfection of surveillance and condemnation, but it has proven over time to be an effective foundation by which businesses can be built. We may have not reached this point of manufacturing if we did not develop a work ethic where workers worked competitively. Without the invention of the Panopticon, this work ethic would not have been as easily accessible to manufacturers and we may have not seen inventors like Ford succeed in the way that we did. Additionally, the conveniently located spaces of the Panopticon made it ideal to incorporate a manufacturing process. Truly, Bentham’s Panopticon was a tremendous supplement to assembly line designers and supervisors.

Cusac, Anne-Marie. “Toxic Prison Labor.” Progressive 73.3 (2009): 26-31. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Mar. 2010.

Barrow, Robin. “Chrestomathia (Book).” British Journal of Educational Studies 33.1 (1985): 87-89. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Mar. 2010.

“Work, History of the Organization of.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 8 Mar. 2010 <;.

Zimmerman, Andrew. “Legislating Being: The Spectacle of Words and Things in Bentham’s Panopticon.” European Legacy 3.1 (1998): 72. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Feb. 1998. 1 Mar. 2010. Web.

Marquardt, James. “Kant and Bentham on Publicity: Implications for Transparency and the Liberal Democratic Peace” Paper presentation: American Political Science Association. 31 Aug. 2006. 1 Mar. 2010. Web. <;

Aihu, Wang, Bahattin Koc, and Rakesh Nagi. “Complex assembly variant design in agile manufacturing. Part II: Assembly variant design methodology.” IIE Transactions 37.1 (2005): 17-33. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2010.

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