The NFL’s Panopticon

The NFL has built a perfect version of the Panopticon.

What is that, you ask? I have long been fascinated with the Panopticon. In an essay about four years ago I described it:

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

The NFL has created its own Panopticon by instituting a new system where fans can discreetly send text messages to a central location during a game in order to report unruly and obnoxious fans. Now, when you are at an NFL game, you must always assume you are being watched and that your actions may at any time be reported.

That sounds scary, but why? It’s my belief that one of the reasons people behave so poorly in public is that they have no sense that anyone else might actually care or call them on it. The NFL’s system creates a feedback mechanism where one didn’t exist before.

What’s interesting to me is how long it has taken for this to come about — and what the possibilities are for the future. Where else might a system like this be instituted?

Even more interesting: Where might the Panopticon grow organically, without an institution having to build it? Neighborhoods? Shops? Dog parks?

2 thoughts on “The NFL’s Panopticon”

  1. Did the NFL say they’re going to DO anything about the unruly fans? What does it matter if you report them old-school (leaving your seat and finding an usher or security guard) or new-school (texting the main office) if there are no actual consequences for the people who are misbehaving?

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